Estonia's defense minister says Russia may use large-scale military exercises to move thousands of troops permanently into Belarus later this year in a warning to NATO.
Russia and Belarus intend to hold joint military exercises in September which some NATO members believe could number more than 100,000 troops and involve nuclear weapons training. It would be the most extensive such exercise since 2013.
Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna said Estonia and other NATO governments obtained intelligence suggesting Moscow may leave Russian soldiers in Belarus once the Zapad 2017 exercises are over, also pointing to public data of Russian railway traffic to Belarus.
Tsahkna mentioned plans to send 4,000 railway carriages to Belarus to transport Russian troops and equipment, and possibly to set up a military outpost on the territory of its closest ally.
"For Russian troops going to Belarus, it is a one-way ticket," Tsahkna told the Reuters news agency in an interview in Malta before a meeting of EU defense ministers.
"This is not my personal opinion, we are analysing very deeply how Russia is preparing for the Zapad exercises," he said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The Kremlin has not said how many troops will take part in Zapad 2017.