Russia launches war games on NATO’s eastern flank

Above, Russian military drills in 2015. Some 12,700 Russian troops are taking part in exercises in Belarus. (AFP)
Updated 14 September 2017
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Russia launches war games on NATO’s eastern flank

MOSCOW: Russia on Thursday began major joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union’s eastern flank — a show of strength that has rattled nervous NATO members.
Named Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the maneuvers, scheduled to last until September 20, are taking place on the territory of Moscow’s closest ally Belarus, in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad and in its frontier Pskov and Leningrad regions.
Moscow says the drills will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 battleships testing their firepower against an imaginary foe close to borders with Poland and the Baltic States.
In a statement announcing the start of the exercises Russia’s defense ministry insisted the maneuvers are “of a strictly defensive nature and are not directed against any other state or group of countries.”
But NATO claims Russia has kept it in the dark and seems to be massively underreporting the scale of the exercises, which some of the alliance’s eastern members insist could see more than 100,000 servicemen take part.
The war games come with tensions between Russia and NATO at their highest since the Cold War due to the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine and the US-led alliance bolstering its forces in eastern Europe.
Moscow has dismissed fears over the drills — the latest in a series of annual exercises that rotate around the vast country — as fueled by the “myth about the so-called ‘Russian threat’“.
But for NATO allies, especially jittery members such as Poland and the Baltic States which only broke free from Moscow’s grip 25 years ago, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.
“This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defenses and that is why we have to be strong,” Britain’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC last week.
“Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity. We see a more aggressive Russia, we have to deal with that.”
Moscow has held a stream of exercises since ties with the West plunged in 2014 over Ukraine, with the military claiming some drills included nearly 100,000 troops.
Minsk has said the games will role-play a conflict with a made-up rebel region backed by neighboring European nations. Russia says they will simulate assaults by “extremist groups” trying to carry out “terrorist attacks”.
Russian military expert Alexander Golts said that Moscow “very skillfully manipulates the figures for such drills because it does not want to have to invite foreign observers”.
“Russia at every drill is working on one and the same scenario — how to deploy troops quickly,” he said.
The Kremlin has vigorously defended its right to hold exercises and has long blamed the US for ratcheting up tensions by expanding NATO up to its borders and holding its own provocative drills.
The Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint military exercises with the US and a host of other NATO countries.
Meanwhile non-aligned Sweden has mobilized 19,000 soldiers for its biggest drills in 20 years, which also include units from across Scandinavia and the US.


Trump-Kim summit in play as Moon visits White House

Updated 44 min 1 sec ago
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Trump-Kim summit in play as Moon visits White House

WASHINGTON: Donald Trump holds a high-stakes meeting with South Korea’s president at the White House Tuesday, talks that could decide whether the US president’s much-vaunted summit with the North’s leader Kim Jong Un goes ahead.
Moon Jae-in jets into Washington on a mission to salvage a rare diplomatic opening between the US and North Korea that is in trouble almost before it begins.
Trump had agreed to meet inscrutable “Supreme Leader” Kim in Singapore on June 12, but the first-ever US-North Korea summit is now in serious doubt, with both sides expressing reservations.
South Korea — worried about Kim’s bellicose weapons testing and Trump’s similarly bellicose warnings about a looming war — was instrumental in convincing the two Cold War foes to sit down and talk.
Moon sent his own national security adviser to the White House in March, carrying an offer of talks and word that North Korea may be willing to abandon nuclear weapons, an enticing prospect.
Trump surprised his guests, his own aides and the world by summarily accepting the meeting, seeing an opportunity to “do a deal” and avoid military confrontation.
Pyongyang is on the verge of marrying nuclear and missile technology allowing it to hit the continental United States with a nuke, a capability Washington sees as wholly unacceptable.
Since then, there has been a landmark series of intra-Korean meetings, two trips to Pyongyang by Mike Pompeo — first as CIA director then as America’s top diplomat — and three American citizens have been released from the North.
But after several Trumpian victory laps, North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize is now in serious doubt.
Earlier this month, North Korea denounced US demands for “unilateral nuclear abandonment” and canceled at the last minute a high-level meeting with the South in protest over joint military drills between Seoul and Washington.
Trump responded by saying the meeting may or may not take place.
Vice President Mike Pence warned in an interview on Monday night that there was “no question” that Trump would be prepared to walk away from the talks with Kim if it looks like they won’t yield results and that the president was not just after a public relations triumph.
Pence said that both the Clinton and Bush administrations “got played” by North Korea when Washington previously tried to get Pyongyang to denuclearize but the current administration would not make the same mistakes.
“It would be a great mistake for Kim Jong Un to think he could play Donald Trump,” he told Fox News.
Trump also surprised many by offering Kim an upfront security guarantee, allowing him to stay in power, and suggested that Kim’s apparent about-face may have been at the behest of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“It could very well be that he’s influencing Kim Jong Un,” Trump said, citing a recent meeting between the pair, their second in a month’s time. “We’ll see what happens.”
Analysts saw North Korea’s perceived slow peddling as evidence of what they feared all along, that Pyongyang may have been playing for time — hoping to ease sanctions and “maximum pressure” or of South Korea overtorquing the prospects of a deal.
“The current episode of tension reflects a wide and dangerous expectation gap between the United States and North Korea,” said Eric Gomez of the CATO Institute.
“Denuclearization is not off the table for the North, but it expects the United States to end the so-called ‘hostile policy’ as a precondition for denuclearization.”
It is far from clear what that means concretely, but it could include the forced withdrawal of 30,000 US troops from the Korean peninsula.
With just weeks to go and little clarity on what will be discussed or what happens if talks fail, some Korea watchers predict fireworks during Trump’s talks with Moon.
“It increasingly looks like the Moon administration overstated North Korea’s willingness to deal. Moon will probably get an earful over that,” said Robert Kelly of Pusan National University.
Yonhap news agency quoted a Blue House official as saying Moon would “likely tell President Trump what to expect and what not to expect from Kim.”