October 2, 2017
Brussels (AFP) - A senior US general said Monday that he believed controversial Russian military exercises last month involved "more than 40,000" troops, vastly more than Moscow acknowledged, but the event did not involve a simulated nuclear strike.
General Ben Hodges, commander of US ground forces in Europe, said Russia split up the Zapad-2017 (West-2017) drills into smaller events to flout international agreements on reporting military exercises.
The Russian defence ministry said the joint drills with Belarus on NATO's eastern flank involved just 12,700 troops and were "strictly defensive" in nature, but the show of strength caused consternation in Poland and the Baltic states, which only broke free of the Kremlin's grip some 25 years ago.
"My guess is that there probably were over 40,000 service members in this whole-of-government exercise," Hodges told reporters.
He said Moscow broke up the exercises into smaller drills to skirt international protocols allowing foreign observers to inspect events involving more than 13,000 troops. NATO was invited to send observers to so-called visitors' days.
"But in fact from a professional military standpoint these were all connected," Hodges said.
In the run-up to Zapad, NATO complained about Russian secrecy surrounding the event, warning that Moscow could be hugely underreporting the scale of the exercises. Estonia, Lithuania and Germany all said they thought about 100,000 troops would take part.