BRUSSELS -- NATO says it will send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor the upcoming Zapad-2017 military exercises, but is repeating its calls on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said on August 30 that the Western military alliance will send an expert to "visitors' days" connected to the drill in Russia, and confirmed that two other representatives will be dispatched to Belarus.
Lungescu said that while the Western alliance welcomed the invitations, international rules require Moscow and Minsk to allow wider access to monitors.
Under Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rules known as the Vienna Document, states conducting maneuvers involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other countries in advance and be open to observers.
Russia and Belarus say the Zapad (West) exercises, which are set to be held in Belarus and parts of western Russia on September 14-20, will involve about 12,700 troops.
But Western military officials and experts say that the true numbers could be far higher, with as many as 100,000 military personnel involved.
And there has been speculation that Russia could use the exercises as a cover for an occupation of Belarus or an offensive against NATO states or Ukraine -- something Moscow has adamantly denied.
The NATO official said that the Vienna Document permits monitors to have "briefings on the exercise 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," she added. "Such avoidance of mandatory transparency only raises questions about the nature and purpose of the exercise."
Russia charges that that Western concerns about Zapad-2017 are unfounded, saying the war games will be "purely defensive" and pose no threat to Russia's neighbors, NATO, or the West.
Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin asserted on August 29 that Western politicians and media outlets have been "spreading myths about a Russian threat" in connection with the exercises, but that "none of these paradoxical theories has anything in common with reality."
Russia holds the Zapad exercises every four years, rotating them with drills in three other parts of the country.
Belarus has invited observers from seven countries to the drills.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia on August 24 not to "use loopholes" to pump up the numbers while keeping observers out.
NATO routinely invites Russia to watch its war games as a confidence-building measure, Stoltenberg told The Associated Press, but "Russia has never, since the end of the Cold War, invited any NATO ally to observe any of their exercises."
In Poland on August 25, Stoltenberg said that NATO would "be watching very closely the course of these exercises" and that Russia and Belarus should "respect the obligation to be transparent."
Belarus borders NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. The area the exercises are due to take place also includes the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.
Russia's military actions in Ukraine have increased concerns about Moscow's intentions in NATO members, particularly former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact satellites of the Soviet Union.
Russia occupied and seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backs separatists whose war against Kyiv's forces has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.
Those actions have prompted NATO to step up its defenses in the east.
The United States on August 29 sent additional jet fighters to patrol the skies over the Baltic states, Lithuania's Defense Ministry said.
Seven US F-15 fighter jets landed at the country's northern Siauliai military air base, where NATO member Poland ran patrols using four jets over a four-month rotation.
The deployment came a day after NATO announced that its four multinational battlegroups in the three Baltic states and Poland -- totaling approximately 4,500 troops -- were now "fully operational."
A statement said these forces were "a defensive and proportionate deterrent force" that responded to "Russia's use of force against its neighbors and its military build-up in the Baltic region and beyond."
With reporting by AP