Russian Military Is 'Downright Lying' About Size of Drills, as 100,000 Troops Expected in War Game

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From left: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu watch the joint war games Zapad-2013 ("West-2013") in Kaliningrad on September 26, 2013. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Russia is “downright lying about the size and the type” of its military drills, and that increases the odds of a clash with the West, a former envoy to NATO said as Moscow kicked off a military drill that allies estimate could inflate to almost 10 times its reported size.

“The fact that the Russians don’t really apply the document should worry us,” Tomáš Valášek, the former Slovak ambassador to NATO, told Politico. “In the future, there may well be a situation where we want proper monitoring when the tensions between East and West are much higher than they are today. And [when] we don’t have that recourse, then it makes everybody jumpy, right?”

The size and purpose of Russia’s current Zapad drill, run jointly with Belarus, has become a source of profound disagreement between Moscow and NATO allies. Germany has estimated that up to 100,000 troops could take part, as opposed to the meagre 12,700 officially meant to participate. Countries neighboring the drill, such as Lithuania and Poland, have expressed concerns that the drill intends to simulate an attack on them and that Russia plans to use the noise of the drill as cover for permanently deploying more troops westward.

Russia and Belarus have claimed that the drill is a practice defense of Belarus in the case of an invasion or a foreign-backed insurgency, not dissimilar from the sort Russia is backing in eastern Ukraine.

Valášek said that although the Russian government is “deluded” in some of its views of the West, he did not believe that Moscow was “irrational” or that Zapad would directly lead to an armed clash this time. However, he said that Moscow's habit of “obfuscating” and “downright lying” about its own drills was most worrying.

“It makes the Western countries feel that they need to respond with an exercise of their own, and that’s how accidents happen,” he said.

Sweden, a neutral state, is hosting troops from some NATO allies in a drill running in parallel with Zapad, while Baltic states have requested that NATO or U.S. troops heighten presence near them during Zapad, as they consider it unpredictable.