The main part of the weeklong “Zapad-2021” (“West-2021”) exercises will start on Friday at more than a dozen training grounds in the two states. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, they will involve up to 200,000 military personnel, apparently making them the biggest war games in Europe in decades.
The bulk of the participating troops are from Russia and Belarus. The others were sent by three other members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization -- Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- as well as India and Mongolia.
Photographs released by Armenia’s Defense Ministry showed around 80 Armenian soldiers marching during the opening ceremony held at the Russian military’s Mulino training center about 360 kilometers east of Moscow.
The ministry said late last week that its troops will take part in the drills in line with a Russian-Armenian plan of joint military activities in 2021. It did not specify their number.
Armenia moved to deepen its already close military ties with Russia shortly after the six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire last November.
Defense Minister Arshak Karapetian visited Russia for at least three times this summer. His Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu reportedly assured him on August 11 that Moscow will continue to help Armenia reform and modernize its armed forces.
The Zapad-2021 drills are based on a scenario where Russia and Belarus are under attack. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov insisted on Thursday that they are purely defensive in nature.
Tensions have run high in recent months on Belarus’s borders with NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Western officials say Minsk has been pushing illegal migrants into those countries to put pressure on the European Union in response to EU sanctions imposed on authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia last week to be open about the upcoming drills and the troop numbers involved. A NATO spokeswoman said, for her part, that the U.S.-led alliance was not invited to observe them in breach of an international agreement governing military exercises in Europe.