Putin’s new challenge to the West: Russia and Belarus alarm NATO with huge war games


Russia and Belarus have alarmed NATO with huge war games featuring 200,000 troops, months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis. 

In Putin’s new challenge to the West, the two states formally opened vast joint military drills on Thursday, a week-long exercise across the territory of both countries and in the Baltic Sea that has alarmed some NATO countries.

The active part of the exercise, which comes at a time of heightened tensions between the West and Belarus due to a crackdown on the opposition there, begins today and will run until September 16.  

Officials say the exercises do not envisage specific countries as adversaries.

But the chief of Belarus’ general staff, Major-General Viktor Gulevich, said the exercises should be a ‘signal’ to the West of the ‘futility’ to taking ‘a position of strength’ with the two countries.  

The Russian defence ministry said up to 200,000 military personnel, some 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 15 ships and nearly 300 tanks would take part. The drills will involve live fire and mark the culmination of a bigger three-month exercise.

The drills have alarmed NATO because Belarus is part of quasi buffer zone between Europe and Russia, bordering the country to the east. 

Russia and Belarus have alarmed NATO with huge war games featuring 200,000 troops and including servicemen from Collective Security Treaty Organisation states such as Kyrgyzstan (pictured, Kyrgyz soldiers)

In Putin's new challenge to the West, Belarus and Russia formally opened vast joint military drills with Kyrgyzstan and other states on Thursday, a week-long exercise across the territory of both countries and in the Baltic Sea that has alarmed some NATO countries

In Putin’s new challenge to the West, Belarus and Russia formally opened vast joint military drills with Kyrgyzstan and other states on Thursday, a week-long exercise across the territory of both countries and in the Baltic Sea that has alarmed some NATO countries

The mass military drills will involve live fire and mark the culmination of a bigger three-month exercise, in a move that has alarmed NATO

The mass military drills will involve live fire and mark the culmination of a bigger three-month exercise, in a move that has alarmed NATO

Russian soldiers prepare for huge joint war games with Belarus involving 200,000 troops, in a move that has alarmed NATO months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

Russian soldiers prepare for huge joint war games with Belarus involving 200,000 troops, in a move that has alarmed NATO months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

Russian military tank operators take part in an opening ceremony parade ahead of joint war games with Belarus. The active part of the exercise begins today and will run until September 16

Russian military tank operators take part in an opening ceremony parade ahead of joint war games with Belarus. The active part of the exercise begins today and will run until September 16

Officials said the exercises do not envisage specific countries as adversaries, but called the  drills, which will include at least 15 naval ships (pictured, warships Zelenyi Dol and Mytishchi leaving port on Thursday), a 'signal' to the West

Officials said the exercises do not envisage specific countries as adversaries, but called the  drills, which will include at least 15 naval ships (pictured, warships Zelenyi Dol and Mytishchi leaving port on Thursday), a ‘signal’ to the West

In Putin's new challenge to the West, Russia and Belarus formally opened vast joint military drills on Thursday, culminating in a live fire exercise on September 16

In Putin’s new challenge to the West, Russia and Belarus formally opened vast joint military drills on Thursday, culminating in a live fire exercise on September 16

The drills have alarmed NATO because Belarus is part of quasi buffer zone between Europe and Russia, bordering the country to the east

The drills have alarmed NATO because Belarus is part of quasi buffer zone between Europe and Russia, bordering the country to the east 

Top military leaders from the two countries attended the opening ceremony of the war games, called ‘Zapad-2021’, in western Russia where flags were raised and speeches given. 

Military personnel from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia will participate too, the Russian defence ministry said.

NATO officials have warned that the drills, which follow a huge Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders earlier this year, increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could touch off a crisis.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov said the drills were purely defensive in nature and would give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective militaries work together.  

A Kyrgyzstan's soldier shoots from a portable air-defence system during a joint military exercises with Belarus and Russia at the Edelweiss training ground near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek

A Kyrgyzstan’s soldier shoots from a portable air-defence system during a joint military exercises with Belarus and Russia at the Edelweiss training ground near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek

A Russian serviceman takes part in the joint military exercises with Russia, Belarus, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization on the Edelweiss training ground near Iissyk Kul lake

A Russian serviceman takes part in the joint military exercises with Russia, Belarus, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization on the Edelweiss training ground near Iissyk Kul lake

Kyrgyz servicemen attend the Collective Security Treaty Organization joint military exercises with Russia and Belarus on the Edelweiss training ground near Iissyk Kul lake

Kyrgyz servicemen attend the Collective Security Treaty Organization joint military exercises with Russia and Belarus on the Edelweiss training ground near Iissyk Kul lake

A Kyrgyz soldier takes cover during huge joint military drills with Russia and Belarus, in Putin's latest challenge to the West

A Kyrgyz soldier takes cover during huge joint military drills with Russia and Belarus, in Putin’s latest challenge to the West

Kyrgyzstan soldiers fire from an anti-aircraft weapon during a joint military exercises at the Edelweiss training ground,  near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan soldiers fire from an anti-aircraft weapon during a joint military exercises at the Edelweiss training ground,  near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Russian servicemen take part in joint military drills with Belarus and other Collective Security Treaty Organisation states on September 9, in a move that has alarmed NATO

Russian servicemen take part in joint military drills with Belarus and other Collective Security Treaty Organisation states on September 9, in a move that has alarmed NATO

Russia has said the massive drills are purely defensive in nature and will give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective militaries work together (pictured, Russian troops parade ahead of the war games on Thursday)

Russia has said the massive drills are purely defensive in nature and will give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective militaries work together (pictured, Russian troops parade ahead of the war games on Thursday)

Military personnel from Armenia, India, (pictured) Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia will participate in the war games, the Russian defence ministry said

Military personnel from Armenia, India, (pictured) Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia will participate in the war games, the Russian defence ministry said

Kyrgyz servicemen on Soviet made T-80 main battle tanks take part in joint military drills with Belarus and Russia, in a move that has alarmed NATO

Kyrgyz servicemen on Soviet made T-80 main battle tanks take part in joint military drills with Belarus and Russia, in a move that has alarmed NATO

Minsk has cosied up to Moscow in recent months, with Putin offering to send troops to Belarus to help quell large demonstrations that broke out in August 2020 following a dispute election that officials said gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office

Minsk has cosied up to Moscow in recent months, with Putin offering to send troops to Belarus to help quell large demonstrations that broke out in August 2020 following a dispute election that officials said gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office

NATO officials have warned that the drills, which will include at least 300 tanks, increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could touch off a crisis

NATO officials have warned that the drills, which will include at least 300 tanks, increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could touch off a crisis

A Kyrgyz BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket system launches rockets during joint military exercises with Russia and Belarus

A Kyrgyz BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket system launches rockets during joint military exercises with Russia and Belarus

After large demonstrations broke out in Belarus in August 2020 following a disputed election that officials said gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office, Russia said it would be willing to send troops to Belarus if the country requested them.

The demonstrations persisted for months, but subsided in the winter as police harshly cracked down on protesters. Authorities have arrested and imprisoned prominent opposition figures and closed many independent media outlets.

Following the presidents’ meeting on Thursday, Putin said conditions in Belarus had ‘notably stabilised’.

And analysts say Minsk’s involvement highlights increasingly close ties between it and Moscow. 

The Kremlin has proved a vital ally for Belarus after the West imposed sanctions on Minsk over a violent crackdown that followed a contested election which gave President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office.

‘Lukashenko has gone from not really being willing to participate [in the drills] back in 2017 to being one of the most boastful, in a way, about how important this exercise is in terms of the intimidation that it represents against the West,’ said Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

Thursday’s ceremony coincided with talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko in the Kremlin, lasting nearly four hours. 

The pair announced that 28 programs strengthening integration were approved during the talks – including forming common energy and financial markets.

A Russian service member walks towards camouflaged armoured vehicles during huge joint military drills with Belarus

A Russian service member walks towards camouflaged armoured vehicles during huge joint military drills with Belarus 

Kyrgyzstan's soldiers prepare an anti-aircraft weapon during joint military exercises that have alarmed NATO months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

Kyrgyzstan’s soldiers prepare an anti-aircraft weapon during joint military exercises that have alarmed NATO months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

A Kyrgyzstan's soldier carries a portable air-defence system during mass military drills with Belarus and Russia being held across the countries' territories

A Kyrgyzstan’s soldier carries a portable air-defence system during mass military drills with Belarus and Russia being held across the countries’ territories

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov said the drills were purely defensive in nature and would give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective airforces work together

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov said the drills were purely defensive in nature and would give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective airforces work together

An aircraft takes off at the start of huge joint war games between Belarus and Russia featuring 200,000 troops, months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

An aircraft takes off at the start of huge joint war games between Belarus and Russia featuring 200,000 troops, months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

NATO officials have warned that the drills, which follow a huge Russian military buildup on Ukraine's borders earlier this year, increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could touch off a crisis

NATO officials have warned that the drills, which follow a huge Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders earlier this year, increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could touch off a crisis

Aircraft take off at the start of  huge joint war games between Belarus and Russia featuring 200,000 troops, months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

Aircraft take off at the start of  huge joint war games between Belarus and Russia featuring 200,000 troops, months after a military build-up by Ukraine nearly sparked a crisis

Russian warships left port on Thursday ahead of massive war games being staged by the Baltic Fleet as part of joint drills with Belarus

Russian warships left port on Thursday ahead of massive war games being staged by the Baltic Fleet as part of joint drills with Belarus

A Russian military vessel sails ahead of naval drills near the Baltic Sea town of Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad Region

A Russian military vessel sails ahead of naval drills near the Baltic Sea town of Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad Region

The moves would bolster Belarus as it faces Western sanctions imposed in response to political repression after a disputed presidential election, and to its forced diversion of an airliner carrying a prominent opposition journalist. 

They would also give Russia a strengthened position in a country that acts as a buffer with NATO members. 

Putin and Lukashenko for nearly four hours and announced that 28 programs strengthening integration were approved. 

The programs fall under a 1999 union agreement that calls for close political, economic and military ties but stops short of a full merger.

Russia has buttressed Belarus’ economy with cheap energy supplies and loans. 

But ties often have been strained, with Lukashenko scolding Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control of prized economic assets and eventually abandon his country’s independence.

The programs include establishing a single gas market by the end of 2023.



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