Russia and Belarus started on Thursday the long-anticipated Zapad 2017 strategic military exercise, the Russian Defense Ministry announced.
“Today, the Zapad 2017 exercise of the Armed Forces of the Union State has commenced,” the ministry said.
“In course of the exercise, the Russian and Belarusian military control bodies and military formations will practise joint actions to organize coordination and comprehensive support to fulfil assigned tasks as part of a regional grouping.”
The exercise will last until September 20 at six ranges in Belarus and three in Russia.
Russian authorities said some 12,700 servicemen are participating in the drill, along with around 70 aircraft and helicopters, about 250 tanks, multiple mortars, and 10 warships.
“The exercise is purely defensive, and does not target any country or group of states,” the ministry stated.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has previously underscored that the alliance would be monitoring the drill closely. He also urged greater transparency of the operations.
“The lack of transparency increases the risk of misunderstanding, miscalculations, accidents and incidents that can become dangerous,” Stoltenberg said.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said Thursday his country does not consider the exercise as a threat, but did not rule out provocations.
“We cannot rule out attempts to test NATO defences or to test us in a non-military way like cyber defense. We have seen already some information warfare elements trying to tell how scared the Baltics are, trying to intimidate our societies and trying to send messages to NATO allies and their societies,” he stated.