A senior NATO general says the military alliance is concerned about the large-scale Zapad (West) 2017 military drills being conducted by Russia and Belarus because of Moscow's lack of transparency.
General Petr Pavel, who is chief of NATO's Military Committee, said in an interview with the Associated Press published on September 16 that the maneuvers could lead "to unintended consequences of potential incidents during the exercise."
Pavel is among several Western military and political leaders who have expressed concerns about the massive military maneuvers, which run through September 20 on NATO’s eastern flank in Belarus and parts of western Russia.
Moscow and Minsk say the Zapad maneuvers involve 12,700 troops, but Pavel told AP the actual number could be up to 100,000 in what Western officials call a Russian show of power amid the ongoing standoff over Russia's aggression in Ukraine.
Moscow has denied the drills are an aggressive action and said that "NATO is not considered an enemy" and "the exercise is not aimed at NATO."
NATO said it would send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad, but it has repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.
Russian state-run TASS news agency reported on September 16 that observers from seven countries had arrived in Belarus to monitor the exercise.
"In the spirit of openness and transparency and on a voluntary basis, Belarus has invited representatives from Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden, and Estonia to monitor the joint strategic exercise," Belarusian Defense Ministry spokesman Uladzimer Makarau was quoted as saying.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was among those who voiced alarm about the exercises, labeling them a sign that Russia is preparing for a serious conflict with NATO.
Belarus borders Ukraine as well as NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The drills are also being staged in Russia’s western exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.
"All together, what we see is a serious preparation for big war," Pavel told AP. "When we only look at the exercise that is presented by Russia there should be no worry. But when we look it in the big picture, we have to be worried, because Russia was not transparent."
"We have high concentration of troops in the Baltics. We have a high concentration of troops in the Black Sea and potential for an incident may be quite high because of a human mistake, because of a technology failure," said Pavel said. "We have to be sure that such an unintended incident will not escalate into conflict."
With reporting by AP, TASS, and RFE/RL’s Belarus Service