Russia rejects rumors of civilian injuries at Zapad drills
Russia's military has dismissed claims that a helicopter fired on civilians at the Zapad drills taking place near St. Petersburg, agency reports say. Video footage appeared to show the chopper shooting at bystanders.
In a statement quoted by Russia's TASS news agency on Tuesday, the Western Military District said reports that several people had been injured in an accidental helicopter gunship strike at the controversial Zapad war games were completely false.
"There were no incidents involving army aviation during an episode of the strategic exercise Zapad-2017 on September 18," the statement said.
The Russian military's denial came after footage surfaced on social media purporting to show a Ka-52 helicopter firing a rocket towards a row of parked cars and spectators during Zapad exercises at the Luzhsky range in western Russia. A second video from the same location showed the aftermath of the strike, including smashed car windows and shrapnel damage to a military truck. Neither video could be independently verified.
A report by the online news portal 66.ru also alleged the incident had happened on Sunday or Monday, and that two people had been hospitalized with serious injuries as a result of the strike - claims the Russian military rejected.
"Hundreds of Russian and foreign mass media, as well as military attaches from more than 50 countries were watching the exercise," the military's statement said, according to TASS. "All rumors on social media about a barrage of rockets hitting a crowd of journalists and a large number of casualties are either a deliberate provocation or just somebody's personal stupidity."
It added that the incident shown in the video happened during a separate, earlier military exercise.
"The homing system of one of the helicopters locked on a wrong target by mistake. An unguided missile hit a truck. There was no one inside," it said, without specifying when the incident took place.
What is Zapad?
Zapad, which means "west" in Russian, is a joint military drill conducted by the Russian and Belarussian armies along Russia's northwestern border with Europe, which is also NATO territory. The 2017 exercise, which takes place from September 14 to 20, is one of Russia's four annually rotating regional training operations that tests military strategy and troop preparedness by simulating war.
What has Zapad looked like in the past?
The Zapad games originated in the Soviet Union and the last exercises took place in 2009 and 2013. In the aftermath of those drills, NATO accused Russia of secretly using them to prepare tactics for its subsequent military invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and east Ukraine in 2014. NATO also accused Russia of ending both years' drills with hypothetical nuclear strikes on European nations.
What will Zapad look like this year?
According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) 2011 Vienna Document, a nation must allow other states to observe its military drill if more than 13,000 troops are involved. Russia has said only 12,700 troops will take part. However, western security analysts have pegged the number as high as 100,000.
Russia denies alterior motives
Russia has denied NATO's allegations that Zapad-2017 will mobilize troops in violation of international agreements; it insists it is being fully transparent in its preparations and operations. Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin (above) told DW that Zapad-2017 "is absolutely peaceful, and absolutely defensive in nature." He also denied that the practice maneuver was directed at NATO.
'NATO remains calm and vigilant'
While NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed Russia's troop disclosure, he also has said that the Western military alliance with roots in the Cold War has "every reason to believe it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers" based on previous drills. "NATO remains calm and vigilant," he said in early September while in Estonia (above).
Germany fears 'over 100,000' troops
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen also claimed Russia will deploy "over 100,000" troops in the Zapad-2017 games. In January, Germany sent around 450 troops to Lithuania as part of a NATO mission. Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, is also uneasy about the Russian war games. Above (right), von der Leyen inspects the deployed German troops with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
Protests in Belarus
Politicians are not the only ones voicing concern over Zapad-2017. One week ahead of the maneuvers' start, around 200 Belarusians hit the streets of the capital, Minsk, to protest the military drills. Some 7,200 Belarusian troops will participate, Russia has said, and military exercises will be concentrated in the nation with close ties to Russia. A protest banner reads "For peaceful Belarus."
Controversial war games
The weeklong Zapad exercises, which began on September 14, are taking place in western Russia, Russia's exclave of Kaliningrad, and Belarus. President Vladimir Putin attended the military drills at the Luzhsky training area, near the border with Estonia, on Monday.