- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Russia’s main ally in eastern Europe moved to ease fears of war breaking out in the region, as the U.S. and NATO allies on the Russian border continues to keep a wary eye on Moscow’s ongoing massive military drills in the Baltics.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin on hand to watch the proceedings, nearly 100,000 troops from Russia and Belarus have amassed in the region as part of Moscow’s war-games, code named “Zapad 2017” — “zapad” being the Russian word for “west.”

Officially, the Russia military says the total number of troops participating in the drills is just over 12,000. The secrecy surrounding the exercises is raising concerns that the military drills has sparked panicky talk about Russia’s perennially nervous neighbors that the exercise could be a precursor to an invasion of Poland, Ukraine or any of the other former Soviet satellite states that dot Eastern Europe.

On Wednesday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said such accusations were designed to tarnish bilateral military efforts between Moscow and Minsk, noting any claims of Russia or Belarus attempting to gain a war footing in the Balkans were “irrelevant.”

“The attempt to discredit the exercises is extremely unprofessional. We won’t wage war on anyone. Do not expect any attack from us — especially on Ukraine,” he told reporters while observing ongoing training operations ties to the Zapad drills.

“All the troops will be back to the sites of their permanent deployment,” he said, adding “in a week, this issue will become irrelevant.” His comments came the same day as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said the exercises were part of an overall campaign by Moscow “aimed at spreading uncertainty and fear” among U.S. and the NATO alliance at a time of rising tensions between the Kremlin and Western leaders.

“Even as we speak, around 100,000 Russian troops are engaged in offensive military exercise ‘Zapad 2017’ on the borders of the Baltic States, Poland and even in the Arctic,” she said during her annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“The Kremlin is rehearsing aggressive scenarios against its neighbors, training its army to attack the West,” noting the Zapad drills were the clearest example of the threat posed by Russia.

Mr. Putin skipped this year’s U.N. gathering to attend the military exercises.

Last May, Moscow announced Wednesday plans to create three new military divisions to protect its southern and western borders, days after U.S. and NATO military leaders unveiled plans to stand up a 4,200-man force in eastern Europe to counter recent Russian aggression there.

The new divisions, totaling roughly 30,000 troops will be in place by the end of this year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised interview with Russian media outlets.

The bulk of those new forces will be deployed to Russia’s Western Military District, which sits along the country’s borders with Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states and Finland, Mr. Shoigu said at the time. The Russian defense chief bluntly said the troop buildup was driven by NATO plans to deploy thousands of troops into the Baltic region.

“The Ministry of Defense has adopted [these] series of measures to counter the growing capacity of NATO forces in close proximity to the Russian borders,” Mr. Shoigu said.

After their initial hopes of improved relations with President Trump were dashed, Russian officials have been increasingly critical of U.S. policy under Mr. Trump. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in an interview with Russian reporters at the U.N. gathering Wednesday, criticized the tone of Mr. Trump’s Tuesday address and his threats to North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs.

“If you simply condemn and threaten, then we’re going to antagonize countries over whom we want to exert influence,” Mr. Lavrov said.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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