Putin has launched massive war games with 200,000 troops spanning 2,000km on Europe’s doorstep in a warning to the West.
The Zapad-2021 military drills include Belarus and run north to south from the Baltic to Ukraine amid fears of flashpoints along east-west frontiers.
But Putin’s forces are also staging simultaneous major war games in the Arctic after completing separate large-scale joint exercises in ex-Soviet republics bordering strife-torn Afghanistan on Thursday.
The Zapad-2021 exercises – or West-2021, in English – involve a total of 200,000 troops, 80 warplanes and helicopters, plus some 760 pieces of military equipment including 290 tanks, and 240 artillery pieces, multiple launcher rocket systems, and mortars.
The joint exercises with landlocked Belarus – which borders three NATO countries – come amid a significant step towards Russia swallowing up its westerly neighbour after talks between Putin and Minsk dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
On Europe’s doorstep, and close to the tinderbox in Ukraine, the Russian show of strength is being monitored closely by the West at a time of intense diplomatic tension.
The drills span more than 2,000 kilometres and include nine military training bases, also involving 15 warships from Russia’s Baltic Fleet.
“These exercises are not aimed against anyone,” insisted Putin after talks with Lukashenko, who has faced unprecedented protests against his iron-fist rule spanning more than a quarter of a century.
But the drills were “logical at a time, when other alliances, such as NATO, actively ramp up their presence near the borders of the Union State (of Russia and Belarus).”
The Kremlin hardliner said: “We discussed issues related to forming a common defence space and ensuring security along our borders.”
The two leaders agreed to harmonise tax and customs legislation, as well as defence cooperation, seen as a key step for Russia to swallow up Belarus and its basket case economy.
Most Western leaders do not recognise Lukasheko as the legitimate leader of Belarus after a “rigged” election last year.
NATO has called on Russia and Belarus to act “in a predictable” manner during the drills.
“This is especially important when there is increased military activity along our borders, to reduce risks and avoid any accidents or incidents,” said an alliance spokeswoman.
“We keep channels of communication open with Russia, in line with our dual track approach – combining defence and deterrence with dialogue. We will also remain in contact with Minsk as needed.”
There is concern in the Baltic States and Poland after Belarus has “weaponised” illegal immigrants from Iran and Iraq, by arranging their infiltration through EU borders in an alleged move to destabilise the West.
Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics has issued a warning over the Zapad-2021 drills.
“You have a border crisis, you have a major military exercise going on at the borders of NATO countries,” he said.
“You also have increased presence on our side, the Lithuanian side, Estonian side, Polish side of border guards, and military formations.
“Of course, this is increasing the possibility of incidents.”
The war games follow a massive troop build-up by Russia close to Ukraine earlier this year which led to fears that Putin intended to grab easterly regions controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
The West say Putin has failed to notify the West on details of the exercises, claiming NATO shares information with Moscow when they hold drills.
Putin is seen as keeping the West guessing on his intentions.
Separately, the Russian Northern Fleet has started exercises in the Arctic, with 50 ships, 120 planes and helicopters plus around 8,000 servicemen.
These span the entire length of Russia’s polar coastline.
Actions by Northern Fleet forces are taking place in the waters of the Barents, Kara, Chukchi and East Siberian seas, the Laptev Sea, the Novosibirsk Islands and Franz-Josef Land,” said the fleet.
This follows the Rubezh-2021 drills led by Russia involving the armed forces of ex-Soviet states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and the testing of new nukes and military jets carrying hypersonic missiles.
These operations coincided with concern in these countries over the instability in Afghanistan.
It also comes weeks after the US Navy launched it biggest war games in 40 years as Washington “prepares” for a future world war amid rising tensions with Russia and China.
It’s thought that 36 ships and more than 50 virtual units took part in the mission alongside military and civilians in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, according to the Defense Post.
The drill marks a return to similar Cold War exercises that were seen during the 1980s.