There are fears that Moscow may be moving far more troops into Belarus than it intends to withdraw, establishing a permanent military presence there on the border with NATO countries. And officials in the Baltics and Poland have voiced alarm that the exercises could be used as a cover for Russian aggression, as happened in 2014, when Moscow staged large-scale exercises to camouflage preparations for its annexation of Crimea and intervention on the side of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“NATO will be monitoring the exercises closely,” the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in an interview recently in Brussels, the site of NATO’s headquarters. Russia, he said, is entirely within its rights to train its forces. But it has stirred unease by routinely skirting mutually agreed upon rules designed to calm jitters.
“The lack of transparency increases the risk of misunderstanding, miscalculations, accidents and incidents that can become dangerous,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. He called on Russia to “respect both the letter and intentions” of the so-called Vienna Document, which commits Russia and Western nations to report all exercises with more than 13,000 troops or 300 tanks and to allow foreign observers to monitor those that do.
The West has been bracing for the Russian exercises for months. Then, late last month, a scenario outlined by the military leadership in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, described the main task for this year’s Zapad program: to repel aggression by Veishnoriya, a fictional country that is backed by the West and intent on driving a wedge between Russia and Belarus. The scenario also includes two other fake countries, Lubeniya and Vesbasriya, which form a coalition with Veishnoriya to menace Russian security.
The Baltic States and Poland, which fear that the fictional nations invented by Zapad planners are thinly disguised proxies for their own countries, say they believe that the number of Russian troops taking part in Zapad-2017 could reach 100,000.
Western nations conduct war games, too, of course. This summer, the United States led an allied force of 25,000 in exercises in Eastern Europe. But the West follows the rules in the Vienna Document, and allows Russian observers to keep a watch.
Russia, Mr. Stoltenberg said, has a record of exploiting loopholes in the Vienna Document, habitually understating the number of troops taking part in war games by tens of thousands.
Moscow and Minsk insist that this week’s Zapad exercise will involve just 12,700 troops. This means that, like all previous Russian military exercises since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, it weighs in just under the 13,000-troop threshold and is therefore is free of observers from the West.
But Estonia’s defense minister, Margus Tsahkna, has pointed to a tender issued this year by Russia’s Ministry of Defense for more than 4,000 railway wagons to transport military equipment and soldiers to Belarus. The figure suggests that far bigger military contingents would be on the move than declared, the minister said, a sign that Moscow may intend to leave some behind.
The United States military has echoed such worries, with Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who heads the Army forces in Europe, describing Zapad as a possible “Trojan horse” that would send in Russian forces but not take them out.
Belarus, which depends on Russian supplies of cheap energy to keep its economy afloat and shares Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s belief that the West is plotting to sow division and even to invade, says it has no such concerns itself.
Military exercises, including those conducted by NATO, often feature invented enemies, a practice that blurs their real purpose and avoids upsetting real countries that do not like to be used as a punching bag for military training — especially when this involves simulated nuclear attacks. Western experts say they believe that Russian war games in 2009 and 2013 included simulated nuclear strikes against Warsaw and Stockholm.
The three fake countries at the center of the Zapad-2017 drills, however, have taken on a virtual life of their own online. While it is not clear who is behind it, a clearly pro-Western satirical Twitter account issues regular announcements in the name of the Veishnoriya Ministry of Foreign Affairs and displays pictures of the fake country’s passport, flag, national currency and other national symbols, all of them invented.
“We are deeply concerned about the concentration of Belarussian military equipment at the borders of Veishnoriya,” reads one message posted by the nonexistent nation’s Foreign Ministry. Others include a call for volunteers from “brotherly countries” to repel an invasion from the east and warnings that Veishnoriyans are “warlike beasts” who will not surrender.
Veishnoriya also has a lively account on Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, with posts of beautiful Veishnoriyan natives in what is said to be traditional Veishnoriyan clothing. It also has fierce supporters on Facebook, where one fan provided a tongue-in-cheek “historical note” about the nonexistent country’s martial spirit: “Throughout its history, Veishnoriya hasn’t lost a single war.”
Russia has dismissed Western anxieties over Zapad-2017, saying that the exercises are purely defensive. Fueling unease is Russia’s silence on what exactly the exercises will involve. Belarus has invited foreign military attachés based in Minsk to watch and released some details of its war games with Russia, including airstrikes and tank battles on Sunday and Monday.
But it is not clear that the attachés will have the freedom they need to move about and to talk with soldiers. Moscow, for its part, has said only that the exercises threaten nobody and will involve operations in Belarus, in Russia’s Western Military District and in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, next to Poland.
This vagueness, according to NATO officials in Brussels, continues a pattern of obfuscation deeply entrenched since the Soviet era.
A declassified C.I.A. report on Soviet military exercises prepared in the 1980s said that deception was always a central feature of Moscow’s training program, with Soviet forces deploying elaborate ruses to camouflage the real number of troops and purpose of their major exercises. It noted that a Soviet naval exercise designed to practice landing troops on islands off Denmark, a member of NATO, had been disguised as training devoted to the defense of Soviet shores.
Measures taken to deceive NATO, the C.I.A. report said, included leaking fake information on Soviet radio frequencies monitored by the West and planting disinformation through human agents. In some cases, the Soviet military deployed special “camouflage forces” that operated “in totally different regions” from those taking part in a real exercise “so as to mislead NATO intelligence.” It also generated phony radio traffic “in a manner intended to deceive foreign intelligence to the type of the exercise, its aim, conduct etc.”
Foreign observers from NATO were never allowed to watch Soviet-era Zapad exercises, and diplomats based in Moscow were barred from visiting regions where the exercises were taking place. That was supposed to change with the signing of the Vienna Document, adopted in 1990 by the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and updated in 2011, but Russia has always found ways to circumvent the agreement.
Mr. Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said he could not speculate about the real purpose of Zapad-2017, saying that this would become clear only once it was over next week. At the same time, he noted, the exercise fits a “pattern of a more assertive Russia” that is “exercising more aggressively” and, through its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, has shown that “it is willing to use military force against its neighbors.”
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