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The first day of major joint war games between Russia and Belarus began in confusion Thursday, as the militaries of both countries announced the Russians would be moving in opposite directions. The defence ministry in Moscow first announced that units of the Russian first tank army were rushing toward Belarus - a statement swiftly denied by the Belarusian military, who insisted the Russian tanks were heading to training bases in their own country. The confusion only exacerbated fears that the Zapad war games taking place largely in Belarus are a cover for a Russian assault, like those that preceded the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Belarus' Col.Alexander Prokopenko, left, reads his order to start the drills at a training ground Credit: Vayar m/AP Many have joked that the Russian forces—officially numbering 3,000—might not withdraw at the end of the exercises, and analysts have speculated that they could leave behind military equipment to cut down deployment time in case of conflict. “Without question, all participants of the exercises will return to their permanent bases after the exercises, including the Russian units to the territory of the Russian Federation,” Vladimir Makarov, spokesman of the Belarusian defence ministry, told journalists. He added that the war games “don't hold any danger for Belarus, for neighbouring countries, for Ukraine”. Yet while the exercises are designed to demonstrate Russia's ability to fight Nato, they have also eroded Minsk's claims to neutrality and alarmed its neighbours. On Thursday, Poland's defence minister called Zapad 2017 a “serious threat” to regional security, and Ukraine has been holding its own “Unflinching Firmness” military manoeuvres this week. Even before it started, Zapad had been rattling Nato and its allies. Sweden is holding its largest military exercises in two decades, responding to a simulated attack from the direction of Russia, and US army tanks and fighting vehicles arrived in northern Poland on Monday as part of the ongoing Operation Atlantic Resolve exercises. A Belarus' soldier aims his anti-aircraft gun at a training ground at an undisclosed location in Belarus. Credit: Vayar Military Agency/AP Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who has long played Russia and the West off each other for aid money, cheap oil and political benefit, has only reluctantly proceeded with this year's biannual joint exercises. Displaying unusual openness, the Belarusian authorities said they have invited more than 80 observers from international organisations and nearby countries. The 12,700 troops officially said to be participating—Western pundits have estimated up to 100,000 could actually be involved—fall under the threshold for broad international monitoring. “Belarus has been trying to distance itself from Russia and establish neutrality in tensions between Russia and the West, and these exercises ruin this,” said analyst Valery Karbalevich. A Russian T-90 tank firing in Kubinka Patriot Park outside Moscow during the first day of the "Army 2017" International Military-Technical Forum. Credit: Aleander Nemenov/AFP “But Belarus can't refuse because it would be very disloyal to Russia.” If it wasn't already clear that the Zapad exercises were a thinly veiled preparation for a conflict with Nato, their supposed “aggressor countries”—called Lubeniya, Veishnoriya and Vesbasriya—were located roughly where Lithuania, Latvia and Poland are on a map shown at the Russian defence ministry briefing. Moscow is demonstrating to Washington and Nato it can quickly establish control of Belarus and cut a corridor to the Russian exclave Kaliningrad, headquarters of the Baltic fleet, according to analyst Alexander Golts. “For first time in many years Russia is openly working out military actions against Nato members,” he said. The war games also showcase Russian military equipment, which was on display to buyers at the Army expo in Moscow earlier this month. Some 140 tanks, up to 150 artillery and air defence units and more than 40 planes and helicopters will participate. But some here worry Belarus is becoming Russia's Western front. For years Moscow has been seeking an airbase in Belarus, and Russia recently proposed creating a joint air defence system with Belarus. Earlier this month, the Belarusian opposition staged a protest against the Zapad exercises as a threat to independence. “The main danger is that we are drawn into a conflict. On our territory the Russian army will train to attack the West,” said Mykola Statkevich, the recently freed opposition leader. “No one wants conflict, but when escalation is happening, no one wants to step down, the likelihood of negative scenarios increases.”
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