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Russia's 2017 Zapad war games are not directed against the West, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin told DW in an exclusive interview. He also believes NATO-Russia relations will improve soon.
Russia's 2017 Zapad - which means West in Russian - military exercise runs from September 14 to 20. 12,700 Russian and Belarusian troops are taking part, pitting their forces against fictional Western nations. NATO's eastern members see the war games as a provocation as previous drills preceded clashes in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea. The Zapad drills take place every four years.
DW: Zapad is taking place on the border with the West and NATO. Of course, that raises questions in the West. For example, the Lithuanian defense minister believes that this is a drill for an offensive against Poland and the Baltic states. How justified are these concerns?
Alexander Fomin: I can calm our dear neighbors straightaway. The exercise is absolutely peaceful, and absolutely defensive in nature. In this case, the "West" isn't to be taken in the broad, political sense of the geographic term as the countries of the West, of the European Union or the members of NATO. The term West designates West of the Russian Federation and of Belarus - which is even further west than Russia.
Ukraine is particularly concerned that this exercise will turn into an invasion, into an offensive operation…
Certainly not. I can assure you: there are no plans for any sort of invasion into the territory of neighboring countries. The main goal of the exercise is to practice relevant strategies for the battle against terrorism and to practice the use of the armed forces for that battle.
DW: Let's look at the numbers, because there are various opinions which place the number of troops taking part anywhere from 5,200 to 100,000 - a number that has been mentioned in the West. So how many troops are actually taking part? What is the scale of the exercise?
There certainly aren't 100,000 troops taking part. All in all, around 12,700 people will take part in the exercises. Of those taking part, which is maybe what you were talking about, 5,500 are from Russia and 7,200 are from Belarus. That means up to 250 tanks, around 680 armored vehicles and around 150 artillery units.
But from the Karelian area in the Arctic all the way to Belarus — you're covering a huge territory. To have 12,700 people for such a huge territory — is that really enough?
We do have military exercises within the territory of [Russia] with far more troops and resources, and with a far higher number of troops. But in this drill that is the exact number of troops taking part, because it would be unnecessary to have a larger number take part.
Still, this military exercise is taking place at a time when relations between NATO and Russia aren't exactly at their best — some would say they're at their downright worst. Many feel the timing and location of this is a provocation directed at the West.
Of course, we are watching what is happening closely — including what is happening in the system, in the structure of modern European security. And the events, the developments and the actions that are being taken, first and foremost by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] are a cause for concern.
What I am referring to is the insistent and persistent Eastern expansion of the bloc despite promises to the contrary, promises which were formalized in writing — a step which, by the way, was taken at a time when Germany was, thank God, united.
But NATO expansion can be understood as a reaction to Russia's aggressive policies, including in Eastern Ukraine and in Crimea.
First of all, it is NATO that is stationed on our borders. You'll notice that it's not Russia that is stationed at Germany's or France's borders. Who then has been the driving force here? So let's look at what happened from the other side - the military exercise Zapad 2017 is not a reason for NATO troops to be stationed directly on the Russian border.
Aren't you worried that this exercise will only lead to an escalation in the conflict between NATO and Russia?
No, we aren't worried about that, in part because — and let me emphasize this again — this exercise is not directed against NATO, despite the quite openly belligerent attitude of the bloc towards Russia.
So what concrete steps is Russia taking to de-escalate a the conflict so that the cooperation between NATO and Russia, which once existed and now seems to be part of some sort of prehistoric past, can be revived?
You phrased it absolutely right. We wouldn't want that cooperation to remain prehistoric. We believe that there is history, and there is the present. But I am sure that very soon, there will also be a future.
And I am sure that we will restore our relationship with NATO and we will return to the wonderful form of cooperation that is the Russia-NATO Council.
And do you believe that will happen before 10 or 15 years are up?
I think that it will happen in the next year or two at most.
What makes you so certain?
It's not that I am personally certain — it actually is a certainty, as you rightly said. We know the value of peace better than anyone else — as do the NATO troops, of course. And we see how fragile peace can be — including in Europe.
So can the people of Eastern Europe and the Baltics sleep easily?
Certainly. And I am serious about that.
Alexander Fomin has served as Russia's deputy defense minister since January 2017.