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Lukashenka Says Russian Troops Will Go Home After Zapad Drills

Belarus's president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, waves as he arrives to inspect joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises near the town of Borisov on September 20.
Belarus's president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, waves as he arrives to inspect joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises near the town of Borisov on September 20.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka observed joint military exercises with Russia on their final day and said that all Russian troops in his country for the Zapad 2017 drills would go home after their conclusion.

Lukasahenka watched a portion of the exercise on September 20 near the central city of Barysau.

The war games in Belarus and parts of western Russia have caused concern in neighboring NATO nations already wary of Moscow's intentions after its seizure of Crimea and military interference in eastern Ukraine.

Lukashenka reiterated that the maneuvers pose no threat to any country and that the Russian troops in Belarus for Zapad will not remain, remarks that appear aimed both to soothe the West and show Belarusians that there is no creeping Russian occupation.

"We are not planning to attack any country such as Germany, Poland, the Baltic states, or our beloved Ukraine," Lukashenka said. "But as they say it in Russian, if someone hits us in the muzzle we will answer back."

He said that all the goals of the exercises were achieved, without going into detail.

Asked why he and Russian President Vladimir Putin observed the drill separately, Lukashenka quipped: "If a mortar strikes in one place, two [persons] are gone in an instant,"

Putin observed the exercise at a training ground in Russia's Leningrad Oblast on September 18.

The exercise came at a time of severe tension between Moscow and the West.

Belarus is closely allied with Moscow but Lukashenka has sought to improve ties with the West -- strained by his authoritarian rule and poor human rights record over more than 22 years in power -- to balance out Russia's strong influence over his far smaller country.

Russia and Belarus said the Zapad maneuvers involved about 12,700 troops in the two countries combined, but Western officials have said the true number could be up to about 100,000.

"Even as we speak, around 100,000 Russian troops are engaged in offensive military exercise Zapad 2017 on the borders of the Baltic States, Poland, and even in the Arctic," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said in her speech to the UN General Assembly on September 19.

"The Kremlin is rehearsing aggressive scenarios against its neighbors, training its army to attack the West," she said. "The exercise is also part of information warfare aimed at spreading uncertainty and fear."

Putin's spokesman has accused the West of "whipping up hysteria" over Zapad, which is held every four years in rotation with drills in other parts of Russia.

Western governments have responded to Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine with several waves of economic and other sanctions targeting Moscow.

NATO has also bolstered its presence in its easternmost member states that were dominated by Moscow during the Cold War and remain concerned about the Kremlin’s intentions in the region.

Belarus borders Ukraine as well as NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The drills were also held in Russia’s western Leningrad region and the western exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.

With reporting by BelaPAN, BelTA, Reuters, and
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