Russia’s Military Drills Near NATO Border Raise Fears of Aggression

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WASHINGTON — Russia is preparing to send as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory at the end of the summer, one of the biggest steps yet in the military buildup undertaken by President Vladimir V. Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.

The troops are conducting military maneuvers known as Zapad, Russian for “west,” in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The drills will feature a reconstituted armored force named for a storied Soviet military unit, the First Guards Tank Army. Its establishment represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command.

The military exercise, planned for many months, is not a reaction to sweeping new economic sanctions on Russia that Congress passed last week. So far, Russia has retaliated against the sanctions by forcing the expulsion of several hundred employees in American diplomatic posts in the country.

But the move is part of a larger effort by Mr. Putin to shore up Russia’s military prowess, and comes against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive Russia. Beyond Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election in support of the Trump campaign, which has seized attention in the United States, its military has in recent years deployed forces to Syria, seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, rattled the Baltic States with snap exercises and buzzed NATO planes and ships.

Punishing sanctions by the United States and European allies that have isolated Russia further have done nothing to stop Mr. Putin’s saber-rattling, as illustrated by the long-scheduled Zapad exercise.

Even more worrying, top American military officers say, is that the maneuvers could be used as a pretext to increase Russia’s military presence in Belarus, a central European nation that borders three critical NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

“The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and that’s not paranoia,” Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the United States Special Operations Command, told a national security conference in Aspen, Colo., in July.

Peter B. Zwack, a retired one-star Army general who was the American defense attaché in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, said: “First and foremost, the messaging is, ‘We’re watching you; we’re strong; we’ve learned a lot; don’t mess with Russia.’”

Western military officials caution that the United States and Russia are not on the brink of war. But they expressed concern that the heightened Russian military activity could lead to unintended confrontations.

For this installment of the Zapad maneuvers, a Cold War relic revived in 1999 and held again in 2009 and 2013, Russia has requisitioned enough rail cars to carry 4,000 loads of tanks and other heavy equipment to and from Belarus.

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The Russians already have about 1,000 air defense troops and communications personnel stationed in Belarus, and logistical teams are surveying training sites there. By mid- August, advance elements of the thousands of Russian Army, airborne and air defense troops that are to participate in the exercise are expected to arrive. The rest of the force is expected to reach Belarus by early September ahead of the Zapad exercises, scheduled for Sept. 14 to 20.

The United States is taking precautions, including sending 600 American paratroopers to NATO’s three Baltic members for the duration of the Zapad exercise and delaying the rotation of a United States-led battle group in Poland.

“Look, we’ll be ready; we’ll be prepared,” said Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the head of United States Army forces in Europe. “But we’re not going to be up on the parapets waiting for something to happen.”

In 2014, Russia’s stealthy forays into eastern Ukraine and its rapid capture of Crimea were seen as skillful exercises in “hybrid warfare,” a combination of cyberwarfare, a powerful disinformation campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops and local proxy forces.

But there is nothing subtle about the tank-heavy unit at the heart of the coming Zapad exercise.

The First Guards Tank Army, made up mainly of forces transferred from other units, including elite motorized and tank divisions near Moscow, has an extensive pedigree. The unit battled the Germans during World War II on the Eastern Front and eventually in Berlin before becoming part of the Soviet force that occupied Germany. In 1968, it participated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.

After the end of the Cold War, the unit was withdrawn to Smolensk, near the border with Belarus, before being disbanded in 1998. But it was reconstituted by Mr. Putin to give the Russian military more offensive punch and present a visible demonstration of Russian power.

“That name was chosen for a reason,” said Philip M. Breedlove, a retired four-star Air Force general who served as NATO commander. “It sends a very clear message to the Baltics and Poland.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/world/europe/russia-military-exercise-zapad-west.html?action=click&contentCollection=world&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=sectionfront

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