Russia and its ally belarus begin a six-day military match.
Thousands of Russian troops are taking part in a war game on NATO’s border to imagine a conflict with the west. It was the largest exhibition of Russian military power since the cold war.
Host MARY LOUISE KELLY:
Now let’s go abroad and talk about Russia and Russia, which today began a six-day military war with neighbouring and allied belarus. Belarus is strategically located on the border with the U.S. NATO Allies Lithuania and Poland. It is expected to be the largest display of Russian military power since the cold war. Russia says the war games are “completely defensive”. Western defence officials have their suspicions. NPR’s Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is with us to help us analyze this. Hey, Lucian
LUCIAN KIM, wired: good morning.
Kelly: how big are these exercises? If you were sitting there watching them unfold from vilnius or Warsaw, would you be a little nervous?
King: so how much of an argument they will have. Russia’s defense ministry says it will have fewer than 13, 000 troops, below the threshold of international monitors. But the problem is that trust levels are low. Just last week, the German defense minister said she thought there could be as many as 100,000 people. So you see quite a difference.
Kelly: so the debate just passed this size. In terms of geography, we say it’s going to happen in belarus. Remind us, what is the relationship between belarus and Russia now?
Kim: well, I think that in some ways belarus can be called the forgotten country of Europe. After the collapse of the Soviet union, it was independent but close to Russia. This is a man – his name is Alexander lukashenka – over 20 years. And he has been playing with the constant balance between the west and Russia. He relied on cheap Russian oil, so he didn’t have much choice. Mr Lukashenka’s opposition to belarus is very concerned about these exercises. They think it could be a Trojan horse for bringing in Russian troops and equipment.
Kelly: and is it clear? We say Russia says it’s completely defensive. That would be below the threshold of international monitoring. What do they say they want to get rid of these exercises?
Kim: I mean, from a Russian point of view, these exercises are in a region that was far behind NATO in the cold war. And today, you know, Poland, the Baltic states are in NATO. Since the beginning of the year, the United States and other western Allies have effectively deployed troops in the region. Of course, NATO says it is a necessary deterrent to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and of course these forces have no right to attack or threaten Russia.
But it does show a degree of tension. I mean, Ukraine is also holding exercises this week. So traditionally neutral Sweden. So from a Russian point of view, this is what you know, showing that they are there, and they certainly won’t back down.
Kelly: you mentioned that this is some kind of Trojan horse. People on the ground are worried about this. I want to know, this is also the fear of the United States, Moscow might send these forces – no matter how many people may be – but the troops sent to belarus, and not pull them out?
Kim: of course, from an American perspective, it’s a fear. I mean, the tension is so high right now. We talked a lot, you know, the tensions with north Korea, the war in Afghanistan, the air strikes in Syria. And I think that since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, we have sometimes overlooked American involvement in Europe. Europe – the United States is now in the Baltic states. It is actually a fighting group leading Poland, participating in exercises in Ukraine and Sweden. In the administration of President trump, people are not afraid to leave Europe, and are actually intertwined with America’s Allies.
Kelly: we’re just reminding – memories of Ukraine and Crimea are still fresh. This is not the first time Russia has put troops somewhere, rather than pulling them out. This is NPR’s Lucian Kim updating us from Moscow. Thank you, Lucian.
Kim: nice talking to you.