TAPA, Sept 06 (LETA–AFP–BNS) – NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday he saw no “imminent threat” from Russia’s military exercises with Belarus next week but condemned Moscow for a lack of openness about the drills.
The Zapad event, which Moscow says will involve some 12,700 troops, has caused unease in Poland and the Baltic states, with Lithuania and Estonia saying as many as 100,000 soldiers could take part, though Russia insists the event is “purely defensive” in nature.
NATO has deployed four battle groups — around 4,000 troops — to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in recent years in response to growing Russian assertiveness in the region, particularly after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Stoltenberg, visiting NATO troops at a base in Tapa, northern Estonia, said the troop presence sent a clear message “that an attack on one ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance.”
“We will monitor the (Zapad) activity closely and we are vigilant but also calm, because we don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO ally,” he said.
Western officials have said the preparations for Zapad suggest it could be much bigger than Moscow has admitted, and Stoltenberg said Russia’s openness about the drills did not meet international standards.
Three NATO experts have been invited to attend as observers, but Stoltenberg said this “fell short of the transparency required by the OSCE.”
“Transparency and predictability are even more important when tensions are high, to reduce the risks of misunderstandings and incidents,” Stoltenberg said.
Moscow has said the exercises in western Russia, Belarus and the western Russian exclave of Kaliningrad will involve around 7,200 troops from Belarus and 5,500 from Russia.
Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said Tallinn and the other Baltic states felt “secure and safe” with NATO backing, but echoed Stoltenberg’s concerns about the lack of transparency.
Together with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited NATO’s UK-led battlegroup in Tapa on Wednesday (6 September 2017).
Addressing troops, the Secretary General called the multinational force “a very strong signal of NATO unity, NATO resolve and NATO strength”. Mr. Stoltenberg also commended Estonia for its operational contributions to the Alliance, and for “leading by example” by spending more than 2% of its GDP on defence.
Stoltenberg remarked in his press conference with Prime Minister Jüri Ratas;
We see a more assertive Russia, which has implemented a significant military built-up over several years. Also with more and bigger exercises. NATO is closely monitoring Russia’s exercise Zapad. We are sending 3 experts to the exercise following invitations from Russia and Belarus, but these invitations fall short from the transparency required by the OSCE: briefings on the exercise scenario and progress, opportunities to talk to individual soldiers and overflights of the exercise. This is something which is part of the Vienna Document, which is the international agreement regulating the transparency, predictability related to military exercises. And even though we are invited to distinguished visitors’ days both in Belarus and in Russia, we are not invited to take fully part in any kind of Vienna Document observation of the exercise. So we call on Russia to observe the letter and the spirit of the Vienna Document, transparency and predictability are even more important when tensions run high, to reduce the risks of misunderstandings and incidents. So NATO remains calm and vigilant, and committed to keep Estonia and all our Allies safe.
He also remarked that NATO’s presence in the Baltic region is defensive, it is proportionate, we are here not to provoke conflict but we are here to prevent conflict.
Weeklong Zapad drills begin Sept. 14, Western nations skeptical of Russian troop numbers.
NATO said Wednesday it will send three experts to observe military exercises between Russia and Belarus next month, but alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wants the two countries to allow broader monitoring.
Russia and Belarus say the Zapad 2017 exercise, which runs from Sept. 14-20 not far from the borders of NATO allies Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, will involve less than 13,000 troops, but NATO believes that number will actually be into six figures. Under international rules, the two should allow wider access to monitors if troop numbers exceed that figure.
NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said the three experts will attend so-called Visitors’ Days in Belarus and Russia after they were invited to attend.
But she said international rules permit monitors to have much wider access, including briefings on the exercise, opportunities to talk to soldiers and overflights.
The rules governing military exercises are enshrined in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s so-called Vienna Document.
Servicemen take part in the joint war games Zapad-2013, attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, who both still lead their respective countries. (Alexei Druzhinin/RIA)
Stoltenberg is calling for the Vienna Document to be revamped, and believes he can muster enough support to ensure that unannounced war games, or snap exercises, can be watched with “snap monitoring,” or that small, multiple manoeuvres under different commands be recognized as one big exercise, loopholes he says Moscow is exploiting.
“It’s especially important now, because tensions are higher than they used to be. There is more military activity, more exercises and therefore it’s even more important that we avoid incidents and accidents or misunderstandings,” he told The Associated Press on Friday, in Orzysz, Poland.
Canadian team in Latvia
Stoltenberg was in Orzysz to thank those in the 1,200 U.S.-led battlegroup, based near Russia’s Kaliningrad region and Belarus, for their service. NATO has a total of around 4,500 troops based in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in response to Russia’s renewed assertiveness.
They include a Canadian-led NATO group in Latvia that involves about 450 Canadian soldiers.
NATO allies are concerned that Moscow might leave military equipment behind in Belarus when the exercises are over, perhaps to use later should President Vladimir Putin want to send troops quickly across the border, as he did in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Information and statistics on Russia’s Zapad 2017 military exercise. (Reuters)
Lt.-Gen. Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defence minister, has rejected Western “myths about the so-called Russian threat.”
“The most improbable scenarios have been floated,” he said Tuesday. “Some have reached as far as to claim that the Zapad 2017 exercises will serve as a ‘platform for invasion’ and ‘occupation’ of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.'”
Fomin said the Russian Armed Forces were inviting foreign observers to the manoeuvres, which will involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops, about 70 aircraft, up to 250 tanks, 200 artillery systems and 10 navy ships.
But Lungescu said the invitations are no substitute for real observation under the Vienna Document.
“Russia and Belarus are instead choosing a selective approach that falls short. Such avoidance of mandatory transparency only raises questions about the nature and purpose of the exercise.”
In eastern Poland, U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment Lt.-Col. Christopher L’Heureux said NATO troops remain in a state of readiness, but will not overreact to developments across the border.
“If something goes sideways, we’ll be ready to address that, but we’re not going to do anything special,” he told AP.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg believes that Europe will not be able to compete with NATO in case it creates its defense alliance. He stated this in an interview with the Polish Rzeczpospolita agency.
According to him, Europe’s belief that it can cope without NATO is mistaken because the countries that spent on defense more than anyone upon Brexit will cease to be members of the European Union. In addition, the NATO contingent located in Eastern Europe will be managed by countries that are not part of the European Union.
“We want more European forces, more modern weapons and equipment, more defense spending, less fragmentation. We should avoid duplication and creation of European command or European army, and rhetoric that Europe will cope without NATO,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg praised Poland for making important contributions to the Alliance during a visit to Warsaw on Friday (25 August 2017). He highlighted Poland’s contributions to NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, training in Iraq, and thanked Poland for hosting key NATO commands and capabilities. Mr. Stoltenberg also welcomed Poland’s leadership on defence spending, by meeting the NATO benchmark of investing 2% of GDP in defence.
In Warsaw, Mr. Stoltenberg recalled the importance of the decisions taken by Allies at NATO’s 2016 summit in the Polish capital, which led to the greatest reinforcement of the Alliance’s collective defence since the end of the Cold War. “We have tripled the size of the NATO Response Force, established new headquarters in the east of the Alliance and enhanced our forward presence here in Poland, as well as in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania”, Mr Stoltenberg said.
Commenting on Russia’s ZAPAD military exercise, scheduled for September in Belarus and western Russia, Mr Stoltenberg said NATO would be watching closely. He further urged Russia to respect its commitments to military transparency and the OSCE. “All nations have the right to exercise their forces, but nations should also respect their commitments to transparency,” he said.
While in Warsaw, Mr Stoltenberg held talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, and Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz. He also participated in a trilateral meeting with Polish Foreign Minister Waszczykowski, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melesșcanu, which focused on current security challenges and preparations for next year’s NATO summit in Brussels.
The Secretary General wrapped up his trip to Poland by visiting a 1,200-strong multinational NATO battlegroup stationed in the northeastern town of Orzysz. The NATO battlegroup is one of four in the Baltic nations and Poland established following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Mr Stoltenberg noted that NATO’s forces in the eastern part of the Alliance were a key outcome of the Warsaw Summit, adding that they show Europe and North America standing united.
Boosting the Polish army and securing NATO’s eastern flank dominated talks during the Polish president’s Thursday meeting with the NATO chief who is visiting Poland.
Polish President Andrzej Duda and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg first sat down for a one-on-one before holding a plenary with National Security Bureau chief Paweł Soloch, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski and Duda’s chief-of-staff Krzysztof Szczerski.
According to the president’s office, the talks were a chance for summing up the implementation of decisions taken at a NATO summit in Warsaw last year, which included bolstering the alliance’s eastern flank, and for planning next year’s summit in Brussels.
The meeting also decided that the current security climate shows further, close Polish-NATO partnership and a permanent US military presence in Europe were needed.
Ties with Russia and terrorism were also discussed.
On Friday, Stoltenberg is expected to meet Prime Minister Beata Szydło, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, and Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz, and the US troops who have been stationed in Orzysz, northeastern Poland, since April.
“We will talk about security, about what is most important for Poland, about growing the Polish army, and also about how we imagine that NATO will be supporting us here the whole time,” Szydło earlier said. (vb)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has urged Moscow to meet its international commitments to be fully transparent about war games planned for next month in Belarus and western Russia.
“We are going to be watching very closely the course of these exercises,” Stoltenberg told journalists in Warsaw on August 25 following talks with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.
He was referring to the Zapad 2017 joint Belarusian-Russian military exercises that are expected to take place September 14-20.
“All nations have the right to exercise their forces, but nations should also respect their commitments to transparency,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO’s secretary-general said that “predictability, transparency, is especially important when we have increased military activity along our borders.”
Russia has dismissed concerns over the drills.
Stoltenberg wrapped up his trip to Poland by visiting troops contributing to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence at a military training facility headquarters in Orzysz, 60 kilometers from the border with Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea that borders Poland and Lithuania.
NATO has deployed four multinational battalion-size battlegroups to Poland and the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — to protect and reassure Eastern European member states that are worried about increasingly aggressive moves by Russia following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and its continued support for separatists in the country’s east.
Stoltenberg told Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz in Orzysz that the four battlegroups showed “NATO’s resolve, NATO’s unity” and also sent a “strong message of deterrence,” according to the alliance’s press office.
“We send a clear signal that an attack on one ally will be regarded as an attack on the whole alliance,” he added.
Earlier in Warsaw, Stoltenberg insisted that the troops were deployed to Poland and the Baltic states “to prevent conflict, not to provoke conflict,” denying Moscow’s repeated accusation that NATO has a Cold War, confrontational mentality toward Russia.
“When tensions run high, dialogue is even more important,” he also said. “That’s why NATO has always kept channels of communication open with Russia.”
At last month’s meeting of the NATO-Russia Council — a forum intended to prevent tensions from escalating — the alliance and Moscow briefed one another on upcoming military exercises — NATO’s Exercise Trident Javelin 2017 and Russia’s Zapad 2017.
Under Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rules known as the Vienna Document, states conducting maneuvers involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other nations in advance and be open to observers.
Belarus has said Zapad 2017 involves 12,700 troops — just under the limit. But NATO members suspect many more troops will end up participating.
Belarus earlier this week said it invited observers from seven countries to the drills.
In an interview with AP on August 24, Stoltenberg said that NATO will send two experts in response to Minsk’s offer, adding that this is not enough.
He also said that Russia is using “loopholes” to minimize the number of NATO personnel allowed to observe the exercises.
NATO routinely invites Russia to watch its war games as a confidence-building measure, Stoltenberg told AP, but “Russia has never, since the end of the Cold War, invited any NATO ally to observe any of their exercises.”
Speaking to the Rossia-24 news channel on August 24, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin described Zapad 2017 as “a regular, routine joint exercise.”
“It is not aggression, as some countries see it,” Fomin added. “I do not see any reason to be afraid. Everything, as usual, will be open and friendly.”
A NATO official earlier this week told RFE/RL that greater transparency is important to “prevent misperceptions and miscalculations” in response to military exercises.
Russia and Belarus are choosing a “selective approach” to transparency that does not provide observers with opportunities to talk to individual soldiers about the exercises or conduct overflights, this official said.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis warned in June that Moscow might use the maneuvers as cover for an aggressive troop buildup on NATO’s eastern flank.
Karoblis said his government estimated that 100,000 Russian troops would be involved in the exercises, rather than the official 12,700.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, and Richard Jozwiak in Brussels.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Baltic Post.
NATO accused Russia Thursday of “undermining stability and security in Europe” through its “aggressive behaviour”.
“We have worked actively to forge a strategic partnership with Russia” since the Cold War, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told a defence and peace meeting in Italy.
“However, the aggressive behaviour of Russia has undermined stability and security in Europe,” he added.
The 2014 incursion of pro-Russian forces into eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have strained ties with the west to the limit. In response, NATO has bolstered its presence in eastern European countries that are now allies but were once ruled from Moscow.
Stoltenberg described Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea” as “the first time since World War II that a European nation had taken the territory of another country by force.
“Russia continues to destabilise Eastern Ukraine. It is a conflict in which nearly 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed and this has changed the security context enormously,” he said.
But the NATO chief said he was not looking for a confrontation with Russia and that he strongly believed in dialogue. The alliance has deployed multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as NATO seeks to reassure them they will not be abandoned in any fresh crisis.
WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland will allocate an additional 200 billion zlotys ($55 billion) on defense over the next 15 years to modernize its army amid signs of growing aggression from Russia, a deputy defense minister said.
Russia’s Zapad military exercises next month in Belarus and western Russia, the largest in years, have raised concerns for their lack of transparency, with NATO worried the official number of troops participating might be understated.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will visit Poland on Thursday and Friday to check on deployment of U.S. troops in the east of the country and to meet Polish, Romanian and Turkish government officials.
Poland, alarmed by what it sees as Russia’s assertiveness on NATO’s eastern flank, has lobbied hard for the stationing of NATO troops on its soil, especially since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“The government has approved a legislative amendment … which gives us nearly 200 billion zlotys over the next 15 years,” deputy defense minister Tomasz Szatkowski said, adding that this was in line with plans to raise defense spending gradually to reach 2.5 percent of gross domestic product.
“This is not a trivial amount,” he told Reuters in an interview.
The Polish government agreed in June to raise defense spending gradually from 2 pct to 2.5 percent of GDP. This means that annual spending would nearly double to about 80 billion zlotys by 2032.
Szatkowski, architect of a new national concept for defense, said that although the ministry would be getting almost all the money needed to implement the strategy, some “hard choices” will have to be made.
The plan is to increase the size of the army nearly twofold and revamp the equipment. Nearly two-thirds of equipment dates from the Soviet era when the country was in the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact.
The navy, though, will fare less well from modernization. The ministry has canceled the purchase of two classes of surface vessels, including multi-task frigates used to protect other warships.
“We cannot afford to expand the transport fleet,” Szatkowski said. Higher spending on artillery, engineering or assault helicopters will come at the cost of expanding the airborne forces.
Warsaw plans to acquire fifth-generation fighter jets, but Szatkowski said that this would not happen until the second half of the next decade.
Szatkowski defended the spending plans which have been criticized as “unrealistic”.
“Nobody can release from us the obligation of planning and creating a coherent vision and proving there is money for it – something that is happening for the first time on such a scope in the history of Polish defense planning,” he said.
Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Richard Balmforth.
Russia and Belarus are set to stage the Zapad 2017 war games, and the operation’s size is causing concern among Western observers. Moscow’s heavy troop presence has some worrying whether Minsk’s sovereignty is at risk.
Russian troops have been gathering in Belarus since Monday. The Zapad 2017 (West 2017) war games are slated to begin in September, with roughly 12,700 Russian soldiers officially participating, according to Moscow. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg thanked Russian officials for providing them with troop information, but said the games will nonetheless be closely monitored.
War games exceeding 13,000 troops require the presence of external observers, as stipulated by the Vienna Document, a security agreement among the participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which includes Russia. Western observers fear Russia will break the agreed limit on troop participation. Opposition voices in Belarus, a Russian ally, worry that Russian troops will remain in the country following the exercises to de facto occupy the country.
Regional concern grows
Russia’s military build up to its West is worrying Belarus’ neighbors – Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states – which were all under Moscow’s control during the Soviet era. Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said there are 100,000 Russian troops that President Vladimir Putin wants to use to “put NATO to the test.”
That number may refer to Russia’s total troop presence in the larger region for the exercises, Margarete Klein of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told DW. The military exercises are taking place both in Russia and Belarus, she said, however a lot of speculation surrounds the operation.
“We just have to wait to see what happens,” Klein said. “It’s difficult to talk in advance about what the numbers may mean.”
Doubting the numbers
Russian military expert Alexander Golz pointed out that the Zapad war games extend beyond Belarus, as the Belarusian military announced they are to stretch from Russia’s Kola Peninsula near Finland to the western exclave of Kaliningrad in the Baltic region. Thus troops are being amassed not just in Belarus, but in Russia as well, he said, adding that Moscow has a history of playing fast and loose with troop numbers.
“Russia had a curious interpretation of the Vienna Document during the conflict in the Donbass,” Golz told DW, explaining that Moscow’s troop deployment to the country’s border with eastern Ukraine was said to be part of a military exercise so that the Kremlin could claim its soldiers’ presence did not exceed the Vienna Document’s limit.
Everything above board?
Russia’s Defense Ministry has ordered about 4,000 rail cars, according to media reports, for troop transports to Belarus – more than previous exercises, including 1,000 more than for Zapad 2013, Alexander Alessin, a Belarusian military expert, told DW. Zapad 2017 would remain within the permissible limits, he said, calculating for up to 30 tons of equipment per soldier.
Prospects for Belarusian sovereignty
A post-operation occupation of Belarus is unlikely, Alessin said, because “occupying [Russia’s] only ally would undermine faith in the Kremlin, including with its potential partners.” It would also undermine Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s credibility – at home and abroad, which is in neither side’s interest. Alessin cited Belarus’ denial of Russia’s 2013 request to maintain airbases there.
Lukashenko is unlikely to allow Russian troops to remain in the country following the September maneuvers, Alexander Golz said. For 20 years, Lukashenko has been receiving money from Russia, he said, and therefore has always underscored Belarus’ strategic importance to Russia as an outpost. “As far as Russian military bases in Belarus go,” Golz added, “Lukashenko turned 180 degrees. Interestingly, Putin had to swallow that.”