Russian Federation launches military drills with Belarus, causing alarm

Protesters in Minsk hold a rally against the Russian war games

Russian and Belarusian war games started near the Polish border on Thursday, with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation watching carefully and neighbouring countries anxious the exercises could be a precursor to military action against them.

Western military analysts suspect that the real number of troops taking part in the manoeuvres could be between 70,000 and 100,000. Ben Hodges, who leads U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Reuters that "people are anxious this is a Trojan horse".

Ukraine has already increased its security alert level out of fear that the exercise will be used as a Trojan horse for another Russian invasion.

Despite NATO countries taking part in the massive Swedish drills - some of which are again taking place near Kaliningrad - the alliance has no problem slamming Russian Federation for conducting a much smaller exercise with Belarus.

They are there to emphasise Nato's determination to defend its allies - and Russia's closest Western neighbours.

'It is all smoke and mirrors, ' the official said, adding that the Soviet-era Zapad exercises that were revived in 1999 had included simulated nuclear strikes on Europe.

Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis said "we should not succumb to intimidation", describing Zapad as an attempt to make the Baltic states feel insecure.

But NATO has deliberately taken a slow approach to its military build-up to avoid being sucked into a new arms race, even as Russian Federation has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in Kaliningrad, the Black Sea and Syria.

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U.S. tanks, combat vehicles and other military equipment have arrived in the Polish city of Gdansk as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a NATO exercise aimed at boosting the alliance's military presence in Eastern Europe.

For its part, the USA and its allies have boosted force levels around the Baltics and Poland in the past year in an effort to reinforce defenses in the region. But a 40,000-strong force agreed in 2015 is still being developed, officials say.

"The chiefs of military command centers and the commanders of forces, formations, and military units involved in the drills have received directives from the General Staffs of the Union State's Armed Forces pertaining to the fulfillment of combat training tasks", it said.

With 19,000 troops involved, Sweden will simulate an attack from the east on the Baltic island of Gotland, near the Swedish mainland.

Behind it all is Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its ongoing "shadow war" is support of pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine.

"We have seen before that Russian Federation has used big military exercises as a disguise or a precursor for aggressive military actions against their neighbours", Stoltenberg said.

It was all those railway wagons that got the speculation rolling over Russian intentions with its military exercises this week along its western borders.

NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Everard said there was no need to mirror Zapad.

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