MINSK -- Belarus says its upcoming military maneuvers with Russia won’t violate international agreements, amid Western concerns about the war games.
The chief of the Belarusian Defense Ministry's department for international cooperation, Major General Aleh Voinau, told journalists in Minsk on September 13 that international organizations and governments -- including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and NATO member states -- have been informed in a timely fashion about the Zapad (West) 2017 exercises in accordance with OSCE rules known as the Vienna Document.
Voinau said that the number of personnel, weapons, and military hardware involved in the Zapad 2017 exercises, which are set to be held in Belarus and parts of western Russia on September 14-20, will comply with the Vienna Document as well.
Under 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 Zapad 2017 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.
Russia charges that Western concerns about the exercises are unfounded, saying they are "purely defensive" and pose no threat to Russia's neighbors, NATO, or the West.
Voinau said that by September 30, all Belarusian military personnel and equipment will return to their bases and all Russian troops and equipment will leave Belarus.
He also insisted that the drills will be held far from the borders with foreign countries.
Last week, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that Zapad 2017 will involve about 100,000 troops and accused Moscow of seeking to show off military might on the borders of the EU and NATO.
In an interview with the Russian Defense Ministry's newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda on September 13, the commander of Russia’s Western Military District said such statements were made "without any evidence."
"It is a defensive training and it is the final stage of the joint training of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus,” Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov said. “We conduct such events regularly in accordance with decisions made by our heads of state.”
Fallon told the BBC on September 10 that Zapad 2017 aims at "provoking" NATO and "testing" its defenses.
Speaking on September 7 in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, von der Leyen said, "It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of the capabilities and power of the Russians."
NATO says it will send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad 2017 but has repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.
Belarus borders NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. The area in which the upcoming 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 the Crimean Peninsula in March 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.