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France, Germany Denounce Russia's Strategy Of 'Intimidation,' Dispute Size Of War Games

Russia holds the Zapad military exercises every four years. (file photo)
Russia holds the Zapad military exercises every four years. (file photo)

The French and German defense ministers have condemned Russia's upcoming military maneuvers with Belarus, saying Moscow is seeking to show off military might on the borders of the EU and NATO.

"It is particularly important in this context that we reaffirm our presence in the face of...this demonstration the Russians are making which is a strategy of intimidation," France's Defense Minister Florence Parly said on September 7.

Parly was speaking to reporters at a joint news conference with her German counterpart on the sidelines of an EU defense ministers informal meeting in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

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 nations in advance and be open to observers.

Russia and Belarus say the Zapad (West) 2017 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.

"It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said. "Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of the participating forces in the Zapad exercise: more than 100,000."

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (right) and French Defense Minister Florence Parly (composite file photo)
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (right) and French Defense Minister Florence Parly (composite file photo)

NATO says it will send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad 2017, but repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.

The alliance's secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said on September 6 that he saw no "imminent threat" from the military maneuvers but reiterated that Russia's openness about them did not meet international standards.

"We will monitor the [Zapad 2017] activity closely and we are vigilant but also calm, because we don't see any imminent threat against any NATO ally," he said during a visit to a NATO contingent in Tapa, Estonia.

Russia charges that Western concerns about the exercises are unfounded, saying the war games will be "purely defensive" and pose no threat to Russia's neighbors, NATO, or the West.

Russia holds the Zapad exercises every four years, rotating them with drills in three other parts of the country.

Belarus borders three 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 nations, particularly former Soviet republics or 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, deploying four multinational battlegroups in the three Baltic states and Poland -- totaling approximately 4,500 troops.

Parly, who was due to meet French troops in Estonia, said the deployment sent a clear signal that the Baltic states and Poland were covered by the NATO alliance.

Also on September 7, Russia’s Armed Forces General Staff chief Valery Gerasimov was set to hold talks with the chairman of the NATO military committee, Petr Pavel, in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

The alliance described the meeting as "a follow-on" from a March 3 phone call between the two generals.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Gerasimov and Pavel will discuss "current issues of international security," according to Russian news agencies.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
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