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Belarus Invites Observers To Monitor 'Zapad 2017' Exercises, But NATO Critical

Belarusian paratroopers demonstrate their skills during exercises in the town of Brest in June.
Belarusian paratroopers demonstrate their skills during exercises in the town of Brest in June.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry has invited observers from several countries to the Zapad 2017 joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise that takes place September 14-20 in Belarus, but NATO has said such efforts "fall short."

"Observers from seven countries -- Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway -- have been invited to this event," the Belarusian Defense Ministry said in an August 22 statement.

Russia and Belarus say that Zapad 2017 is expected to involve some 12,700 soldiers.

The Belarusian statement said on August 22 that the invitation came as part of the 2011 Vienna Document, which sets thresholds for the number of troops allowed to take part in exercises before the opposing side is allowed to demand a mandatory inspection.

Exercises involving 13,000 or more troops are subject to mandatory inspections. In the case of exercises involving 9,000 or more soldiers, the other side must be notified.

Meanwhile, a NATO official told RFE/RL on August 22 that Belarus has invited military liaison missions to attend "distinguished visitors’ days" -- when foreign officials such as attaches can come and visit -- during the Zapad 2017 exercise, and that NATO will send two experts to attend.

However, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because NATO officials are not allowed to speak on the record unless instructed to do so, said that the participation of NATO experts "is not the same as observation as set out in the Vienna Document."

"We regret that neither Russia nor Belarus have applied the Vienna Document transparency measures to Zapad, in line with the rules agreed by all OSCE states," the official said.

"The Vienna Document transparency measures are important because they prevent misperceptions and miscalculations.

"A Vienna Document observation has required elements to it -- briefings on the scenario and progress, opportunities to talk to individual soldiers about the exercise, and overflights of the exercise.

"Russia and Belarus are instead choosing a selective approach that falls short. Such avoidance of mandatory transparency raises questions," the official said.

Lithuania's 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.

Formerly Soviet-ruled Baltic states worry that, after Ukraine, they may be next to face pressure from the Kremlin, which is why they are casting a wary eye on Zapad 2017 drills in Belarus, which borders Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, AFP, BELTA, Interfax, and TASS
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