Moscow has said its Zapad war games aren't a threat to the West and complaints about their transparency are unjustified. DW's Emily Sherwin toured the event herself, but Russian officials left most questions unanswered.
The level of anticipation was high among the roughly 90 journalists on the Ministry of Defense's press tour of the Russian arm of Zapad 2017. After all, the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise which began on September 14 has rattled the West for months now. Western officials and politicians have claimed the number of troops taking part is being understated, and that Russia could use the drills as a "Trojan Horse" to make incursions into Poland and the Baltics. The Russian military has repeatedly emphasized that the exercise is part of a routine cycle of maneuvers and is "purely defensive." And Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last week: "We reject complaints of these exercises not being transparent."
Now we were going to see part of the exercises, and attempt to judge them for ourselves. The group, which included dozens of Western journalists from countries like Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic and the US, as well as Russian reporters, packed into two buses to go to Luzhsky military range on Monday. The area in the Leningrad region is one of three in Russia where the drill is taking place, with six more located in Belarus.
On the way there, several journalists stared at Google Maps on their phones, trying to figure out exactly where we were going. We knew which ranges we were scheduled to visit, but didn't have any details of what we would see and when. What we did know was that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had recently announced that President Vladimir Putin himself would be watching the exercises at Luzhsky range that day. One of the Defense Ministry's press representatives confirmed it - and the police standing every few hundred meters along the forest road on our way to the training range seemed to as well.
There was a noticable security presence on the approach to Luzhsky range in anticipation of Putin's visit
The waiting game
"Zapad 2017," which translates as "West 2017," has now been taking place near the border to Lithuania, Latvia and Poland for close to a week. The official scenario has seen troops from Russia and Belarus fighting off an imaginary enemy attacking Belarus on land, at sea and in the air: the made-up countries of Veishnoria, Vesbaria and Lubenia.
At Luzhsky range we would witness the "main phase" of Zapad - the transition from defense to counterattack. A press release we were handed in a tent at the range explained the details: The forces would be repelling the advance of the imaginary enemy using tanks, infantry, missiles, artillery, aviation and paratroopers.
But before we could see any action, we had to wait. We had to wait for the pouring rain to stop to allow for better visibility. And, it seemed, we had to wait for Putin to arrive. With little information, but a lot of snacks, coffee and periodic apologies from the Defense Ministry's press service, we waited for four hours.
Suddenly, everyone was told to get inside the tent. Then we heard the deafening sound of a helicopter landing, as the tent swayed in the wind. "It sounds like that thing is going to land on us!" one journalist exclaimed, as others simply mumbled, "Putin."
The main event
Shortly after, we were brought to the viewing platform, where spectators and military observers had already gathered. There was no visible sign of Putin. It was later reported that the president watched the drill in the company of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
As the rain began to pour again, the exercise began. The overcast sky was lit up by explosions and bullets, as planes and helicopters roared in and out of the fog overhead and tanks rolled over the mud. The "attack" continued for around 40 minutes. Loudspeakers blared an explanation of the exercise and the machinery being showcased.
After the last shots sounded and as the armored vehicles rolled off, three army officials were brought in front of the media for comment. They gave technical details of the maneuver, but did not mention the political implications. The military press service ushered them off, usually without giving journalists a chance for questions.
A positive assessment
Still, Andrei Kartapolov, the commander of the Western military district, gave his assessment of the exercise. "You could see today with your own eyes that the troops that are taking part in the exercise are highly prepared. The weather conditions were very difficult but all the tasks that were set for the divisions were carried out," the Colonel-General said.
"On the whole I am very happy with the results," Kartapolov added. "And the assessment by the commander-in-chief and the minister of defense is positive."
The numbers game
But to the untrained eye, an assessment of the scale of the military exercises, including those in Luzhsky training range, is impossible. A journalist specialized in defense told me he had never seen a military exercise use resources on quite such a scale, pointing out that the fog had covered about half of the action from the planes and helicopters above. Ahead of the exercises, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen claimed that the drills would be a "clear demonstration of the capabilities and power of the Russians."
The Russian army says that overall, 12,700 troops are part of the Zapad exercise, though many Western observers have placed the numbers several times higher. Significantly, an international agreement commits Russia and Western nations to reporting exercises with more than 13,000 soldiers and allowing foreign observers to monitor them.
There were international military observers watching the exercise at Luzhsky training range. The official press release about the drill notes that more than 90 foreign observers and military attaches from more than 60 countries were invited to attend, though it is unclear how many were actually there. Still, German media representatives were told after the exercise that an interview with the observers would not be possible.
And so, as the rain continued, we went back to our tent to wait for our bus.