WARSAW, Poland (AP) – NATO’s chief says the military alliance will send two experts to attend Russia’s war games with Belarus, after Minsk invited them to take part.
The war games, known as Zapad (West in Russian) and starting on Sept. 14, have raised tensions between NATO and Russia. Zapad will see thousands of troops and equipment from Russia and Belarus deployed near the borders with NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told The Associated Press on Thursday that Belarus said the alliance could attend five distinguished visitor days during the war games. Russia has invited NATO to one such visitors’ day but the alliance is still studying the offer.
Stoltenberg said attending visitors’ days does not constitute real monitoring and that NATO is seeking “a more thorough way of observing” Zapad.
Stoltenberg’s remarks came as he traveled to Poland for meetings with the country’s president, prime minister, foreign and defense ministers. He will also visit NATO troops Friday who are stationed in the country.
A police car escorting Stoltenberg’s convoy to the meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda was involved in a crash Thursday with a van, injuring three people but Stoltenberg’s limousine was not affected, a police spokesman said.
Under international rules enshrined by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, monitors should be invited to observe war games involving more than 13,000 troops. Both Russia and Belarus say the number taking part will be less, but NATO officials say Russia has low-balled troop numbers in the past.
“We call on Russia to fully comply with the (OSEC’s) document, but also to not use loopholes like snap exercises, like many different commands for what in reality is one exercise,” Stoltenberg said.
He said NATO routinely invites Russia to watch its war games as a confidence-building measure, but noted that “Russia has never, since the end of the Cold War, invited any NATO ally to observe any of their exercises.”
Zapad is held roughly every four years. The exercises will be a chance for Russia to flex its military muscle near nervous neighbors that have joined NATO since breaking away from the former Soviet Union.
The alliance, and those neighbors, are concerned that Moscow might leave military equipment behind in Belarus when the exercises are over, raising fears that Russian troops could quickly move across the borders later, as they did in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Monika Scislowska contributed.