PLAYING GAMES: Russian and Belarusian soldiers at Zapad-2013 exercises
VILNIUS - The three Baltic NATO states on Sept. 20 questioned the purpose of major war games by Russia and Belarus close to their borders, accusing their Soviet-era master Moscow of a secret “anti-West” agenda, reports AFP. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all expressed concern about the scale of military maneuvers publicly intended to prepare defenses against terrorism.
“Russia has officially stated that these are anti-terrorism exercises. But the number of participants and amount of military equipment indicates that that this is not their agenda,” Lithuania’s Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told AFP. “Every country has the right to conduct exercises, but we are concerned that these exercises are not transparent,” he added.
The maneuvers involved around 13,000 servicemen and hundreds of weapons systems including warplanes, artillery and armored vehicles, a Belarus defense ministry spokesman told the Russian Interfax news agency.
“The Kremlin claims that the exercise is about fighting terrorism, but based on the information we have on Zapad 2013, the exercise has an anti-West agenda,” Estonia’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Eero Rebo, told AFP.
Launched on Sept. 20, the maneuvers were being held in Belarus and the Kaliningrad exclave, which is sandwiched between NATO members Lithuania and Poland. They ended Sept. 26.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which joined NATO and the EU in 2004, have repeatedly said they were concerned by a Russian military build-up near their borders. “If you look at the Baltic Sea region, the strategic balance has been changing quite drastically in the last decade, and not in our favor,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told AFP. “We are concerned because we see such large-scale exercises in context,” he added.
In 2010, NATO approved special defense plans for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which have a combined population of just over six million.
Later this year the NATO alliance will hold its major Steadfast Jazz exercise in the Baltic region and Poland, with around 6,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops.