MOSCOW (Sputnik) — The Zapad 2017 joint strategic military exercise started on the territory of Russia and Belarus, the Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday.
"The Zapad 2017 joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Union State of Russia and Belarus began on September 14," the ministry said.
Up to 12,700 servicemen (about 7,200 from Belarus, some 5,500 from Russia), up to 70 aircraft and helicopters, up to 680 items of military equipment, including about 250 tanks, up to 200 guns, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and up to 10 warships take part in the drills.
Several NATO member states and Ukraine have raised concerns about the drills, while the German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, claimed last week that over 100,000 troops would participate, an allegation refuted by Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.
According to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg NATO will send three experts exercises, following invitations from Russia and Belarus. Previously, Stoltenberg said that the alliance does not see any imminent threat posed against any NATO member by the drills. However, a number of NATO member states located in eastern Europe, including Poland and Lithuania, as well as Ukraine, have already expressed their concerns over the upcoming Russia-Belarus exercises.
In their turn, senior Russian and Belarusian officials reiterated that the drills do not pose any threat to other states and are exclusively defensive in nature. Moreover, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko stated earlier that these exercises would be open for foreign observers. The Defense Ministry of Belarus reported in August that observers from seven countries — Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, Norway — were invited to the event.