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NATO's eyes in the sky zoom in on Russian Zapad war games

NATO has said it is not expecting a major increase in Russian air activity during the country's Zapad military exercises. However, the alliance has accused Moscow of not "playing by the rules" on the ground.

From a Baltic point of view, when NATO's second-highest military commander in Europe says he expects the Zapad 2017 exercises to be a "pattern of normal Russian activity," it's not exactly reassuring.

Frequent buzzing of allied and international airspace by Russian aircraft is one reason there's a regular rotation of NATO Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) planes in the sky over the alliance's northeastern border. Deputy Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, British Gen. Sir James Everard, was aboard the first one in the air on Zapad's opening day, and DW's Teri Schultz was invited along for the ride.

Read more: What are Russia's Zapad war games?

'Status quo' expected for Zapad air activity

Speaking with DW aboard the AWACS plane that flew from its Geilenkirchen base in western Germany to its Latvian mission, Everard clarified that he means he's not anticipating a spike in Russian warplanes buzzing NATO airspace or performing provocative maneuvers over the Baltic states.

That said, the existing level of engagement means there are already incidents every week of Russian planes flying near or occasionally into Baltic airspace, often with transponders off and no contact with air traffic controllers on the ground.

Watch video 06:02

NATO General James Everard on Zapad drills

During the almost four-hour surveillance mission, there were two suspicious aircraft spotted by the specialists aboard. They transmitted the location to counterparts on the ground, who "scrambled" into the air to identify the aircraft and put the pilots on notice that they were being tracked by NATO.

Read more: NATO says more Russian buzzing of Baltic airspace a risk for deadly mistakes

German Air Force Lt. Col. Alex Herrmann, the mission's technical director, said he couldn't reveal any information that had been gained from the scramble. Herrmann, who's been flying AWACS for almost 20 years, also sought to ratchet down tension over Russian activities even as he notes the number of AWACS flights has steadily grown over his tenure.

Herrmann compared the surveillance flights with police checking for speeders on the road. "This is a question of making it safe in the air," he explained. "Right now we are living in peacetime; there's no hostile flying around — it's just 'neutral' or 'friendly' or 'of interest to us.'"

US provides pre-Zapad boost to Baltic air patrol

Nevertheless, the US has boosted its "police" force in anticipation of Zapad. Late last month, leadership of the "Baltic Air Policing" mission, which provides cover for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, rotated to the US and Belgium.

The US, replacing Poland, decided to increase its fleet to seven F-15s over the four jets Poland used in the previous period. US Army Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of American forces in Europe, told DW recently that this boost would be the only US ramp-up due to Zapad.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics agrees with Everard that Russia won't likely launch any direct military aggression, but he doesn't rule out other destabilizing activities.

NATO AWACS flight (DW/T. Schulz)

Herrmann and Everard are monitoring Zapad from the air as part of NATO's AWACS mission

Everard: Zapad forces highest in 36 years

While portraying the calm, unrattled exterior NATO is seeking to project during Zapad 2017, Everard conveys there hasn't been such a huge massing of Russian troops in more than three decades, since deep in the Cold War days. 

"You'd have to go back to 1981 to see one the scale of this particular exercise," Everard said, revealing more than mere skepticism about the figure of "12,700" given out by Moscow.  

So what "scale" is that? Even the AWACS can't tell, as it detects aircraft within 400 kilometers (250 miles) of airspace in all directions, but can't view objects on the ground, which is where open-source reporting is disputing Kremlin claims of a modest-sized exercise. Self-designated observers are tracking and publicizing Russian troop movements on Twitter.  

Fudging figures?

"If very close to those [reportedly 12,700] troops, several thousand more troops are exercising, it doesn't look very honest or transparent," Everard said, hypothesizing about Russia's official scenario.

"One of our regrets is the fact that Russia hasn't played by the rules." He said NATO has "bent over backwards" to be transparent about its own drills.

And despite Moscow's obfuscation, Everard believes with the AWACS above and what he calls a "very comprehensive intelligence platform" elsewhere, "we have a good handle on what the Russians are doing." At the same time, he acknowledged, "I know people are scared and that's a concern."

Many observers say that's a military success for Moscow already.

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