Belarus to Gather 12,800 Troops for War Games With Russia
(Bloomberg) -- Belarus is preparing for large-scale war games with Russia on its territory amid mounting tensions with neighboring Lithuania, a NATO member, over a migrant crisis on their border.
Some 12,800 troops, including 2,500 from Russia, are due to join the ‘Zapad-2021’ (West) military drills Sept. 10-16, the RIA Novosti news service reported Thursday, citing Belarusian Deputy Defense Minister Viktor Gulevich in Minsk.
The exercises, held in both countries every four years, take place as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko grows increasingly dependent on Russia after his crackdown on protesters over last year’s disputed elections sparked U.S. and European Union sanctions. Lithuania has accused him of “hybrid aggression” against the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member by sending thousands of mainly Middle Eastern migrants across their border.
The drills test joint responses toward an attack on the Belarus-Russia Union State during an escalation of international disputes, Gulevich said, according to the Tass news service.
The exercises are defensive in nature and aimed at ensuring security along their western borders, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said last week, Tass reported. Russia plans mass deployment of military aircraft as part of the drills, he said in June.
“We are watching very closely to see how this exercise will unfold, what kinds of troops and equipment move into Belarus, and how much of that leaves,” U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June. “Zapad is one that NATO, in particular, pays very close attention to.”
Russia and Belarus are allied in a so-called Union State that’s seen Moscow prop up Lukashenko’s regime with loans and promises to send troops, if needed, to help quell discontent over the election. Lukashenko for years used the union to gain economic benefits while resisting Russian pressure for tighter political integration, though he’s turned repeatedly to Moscow for help in the post-election crisis.
“If it’s going to be needed for the security of the Union State, which we are building, for the security of Belarus and Russia, to place here military forces with all kinds of weapons - they will be placed here immediately,” he told officials at a July 30 meeting in Minsk.
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