Russia and Belarus launched massive military drills on Friday, with NATO-member Poland warning of possible “provocations” as tensions rise on the European Union’s eastern border.
Moscow said 200,000 personnel would take part in the week-long Zapad-2021 military exercise in Belarus, western Russia and the Baltic Sea, one of the country’s biggest drills in recent years.
The defence ministry released footage of rows of Russian warships firing artillery, military jets flying in formation and columns of tanks advancing over rugged terrain.
Eighty planes and helicopters, 290 tanks, 15 vessels, and multiple launch rocket systems were taking part in the games, Russia said.
The formal launch of the drills took place on Thursday and the exercises went into full mode on Friday.
On the eve of the exercise, President Vladimir Putin said they were “not directed against anyone”.
Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who met with Putin on Thursday, said the countries were “not doing anything that our opponents are not”.
The pair — both in power for more than two decades — held talks in the Kremlin on Thursday and agreed to deepen the economic and military integration of their ex-Soviet countries.
Putin is expected in the Belarusian capital Minsk to sign a raft of integration agreements on November 4.
The military exercises have worried countries in the EU’s eastern flank.
Poland has introduced a state of emergency along its eastern border, the first time the measure has been used since the fall of Communism.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned of possible “provocations” and said the exercises were one reason Warsaw introduced the state of emergency.
Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told local journalists on Friday that the country was prepared for possible “borderline incidents”.
Warsaw has deployed troops to build a barbed wire fence along the border after a growing number of migrants — mostly from the Middle East — have tried to cross into the country from Belarus.
Latvia — which borders Belarus and Russia and has also reported an unusually big amount of migrants trying to enter the EU country — has held military drills since late August.
The military exercise involves 10,000 troops from a number of NATO countries, including the United States and Poland.
– Closer military ties –
Brussels suspects the influx of migrants is being deliberately engineered by Lukashenko as revenge for stringent EU sanctions on his regime.
Putin on Thursday said EU leaders had asked him to intervene, but the Russian leader said Moscow had “nothing to do with it”.
He said Poland should take in any Afghan citizens trying to cross its border.
“You can blame anything on Belarus, but at least take in the Afghans,” the Russian leader said.
Putin accused the EU of having no problem in talking to the Taliban, but not to Lukashenko, who is in power “as a result of a vote, whether you like it or not”.
Putin has extended a helping hand to Lukashenko since unprecedented protests broke out against him last year over an election widely seen as rigged.
The Kremlin chief has long sought political integration with Belarus.
On Thursday, the Russian leader said he had discussed “building a single defence space” with Belarus and agreed on a range of economic policies further integrating the two countries.
Lukashenko said Belarusians had no need to worry and that Russia would not “swallow” his country.