Estonian Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna believes that Russian forces may remain in Belarus after September’s “Zapad 2017” exercises.
According to Tsahkna, Estonia and other NATO countries possess intelligence data according to which the Russian forces may remain in Belarus after completing the exercises. He added that more than 4000 train cars will be used to transport troops and equipment from Russia to Belarus, which also indicates the possibility of a military base being deployed.
“For the Russian troops being sent to Belarus, this is a one-way ticket,” Tsahkna told reporters the day before a meeting of EU states’ defense ministers in Malta. He added that this is not his own personal opinion, but rather fears which are dividing all the Estonian leadership.
“We are analyzing very closely how Russia is preparing for the Zapad exercises. We see what they are doing on the other side of the EU and NATO border. The forces may remain there after the exercises,” the minister said. He estimated the size of the Russian contingent at thousands of military personnel. Tsakhna observed that Tallinn has shared its fears with NATO allies. If Russian forces are deployed in Belarus, they will be on the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia shortly after the deployment of multinational battalions of the Alliance in these countries.
The Zapad 2017 large-scale strategic exercises will be held simultaneously at various training grounds in Russia and Belarus between the 14th and 20th of September this year. When announcing the maneuvers, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu called them the primary joint preparation event of the Russian and Belarusian armed forces in 2017. NATO allies estimate that this could involve more than 100 000 military personnel. This would make Zapad 2017 the largest military exercises conducted by Russia since 2013.
NATO has pointed out that during the previous large-scale maneuvers in 2013, Russia rehearsed special forces actions and carried out tests which were later utilized during the annexation of the Crimea.