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Russia war games in Belarus spark anxiety in Baltics

In this photo taken on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, Belarusian army vehicles drive preparing for war games at an undisclosed location in Belarus. (Vayar Military Agency / Associated Press)
In this photo taken on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, Belarusian army vehicles drive preparing for war games at an undisclosed location in Belarus. (Vayar Military Agency / Associated Press)
By Liudas Dapkus Associated Press

VILNIUS, Lithuania – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are watching with concern the latest round of Russian military drills that some analysts think might be the largest of their kind since the Cold War.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who often criticizes Russian leaders, said the war games getting underway in Belarus on Thursday are a sign the Kremlin is preparing for conflict with NATO.

“We are anxious about this drill … it is an open preparation for war with the West,” Grybauskaite told reporters.

Soldiers, tanks and weapons have arrived in Belarus, according to Lithuania’s military. Leaders and defense analysts in the Baltic states fear some of the equipment could remain in Belarus once the drills are done.

“Leaving weapons in Belarus means the Russian army could prepare bases for a sudden broad attack (…) right at the NATO border,” Lithuanian officer Darius Antanaitis said.

Russia and Belarus say the exercises scheduled to run until Sept. 20 involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops. Estonian Defense Minister Juri Liuk has said Moscow could deploy up to 100,000 troops.

While Liuk doesn’t believe the drills represent a “preparatory move” against NATO, he said “there is reason for concern, because Russian intents are often unclear.”

The 29-member alliance, of which the Baltic states are members, has boosted its own military presence in eastern Europe. The United States last month sent additional F-15 fighter jets to patrol the Baltic Sea region.

“Russia has already used similar exercises to launch military interventions to other countries like Georgia or Ukraine,” Nerijus Maliukevicius, a political analyst at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science, said.

These viewed are echoed on the streets of Tallinn, the medieval capital of Estonia.

“I do not feel very good having these military exercises very close to Estonia, but again we are part of NATO,” resident Piret Veigel said. “That gives me some comfort.”

Others think fears of Russian aggression are out of proportion to the potential threat posed by the war games.

“Worries over Zapad are overkill. Russians will not seek confrontation, because they know that NATO will be watching this event closely and is certainly ready to react,” Kestutis Girnius, another Vilnius University political analyst, said.

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