Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, called on Russia to invite media representatives to observe Zapad, the large-scale joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise to be held in mid-September, saying that there wasn't much reason to trust official numbers provided by Moscow regarding the scale of the exercise.
"The Russians have not given us a lot of reason to trust the numbers that they say," Hodges said at a joint press conference with Lithuanian Minister of National Defence Raimundas Karoblis. "But again, the exercise hasn't happened yet, so we don't know what they are going to do."
Moscow has stated that Zapad 2017 will involve fewer than 13,000 troops, but NATO officials believe that this number was artificially reduced by splitting the exercise into separate parts so as not to give wider access to observers as required by international rules.
The military exercie will be held in Western Russia, its Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad as well as in Belarus from Sept. 14-20.
Hodges said that Russia could dispel concerns by inviting journalists to observe the drills the way Western countries do.
"I think this would all be solved and everybody would be relaxed if the Russian Federation invited the media to everything that they do the way that the Lithuanian Armed Forces do, the German Armed Forces do, the American Armed Forces do," Hodges offered.
"If the Russian Federation is truly interested in stability and security, then be transparent, invite media to see everything that they do," he continued. "In the West, we have journalists, think-tanks, parliamentarians, civic organizations — they come to every exercise that we do, so that people don't have to be concerned or worried about what we are actually doing."
According to the commanding general, this concern could be alleviated with transparency. "We have Russian inspectors come to our exercises all the time," he pointed out. "I've had Russians visit me in Germany, Poland, Bulgaria during exercises. I would love to have them follow me around all day just to turn down the temperature and build some confidence."
Hodges said that he feels confident in the deterrence capability that NATO has established in the region, but added that the alliance must remain vigilant and continue to try to understand what potential adversaries are doing. "Of course, the alliance faces several different types of threats. Being alert is the responsibility of all of our security services. But I don't have a good record for predicting the future."
Multinational battalion-sized battle groups of approximately 1,000 troops each were deployed to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland earlier this year, and the U.S. has sent extra troops to the Baltics for the period of time when Zapad takes place.
Russia and Belarus have stated that Zapad 2017 will be "purely defensive." Karoblis, however, said on Friday that "defense may be followed by a counteroffensive and a simulation of an offensive."
Estonian defense chief: Events beyond border must be observed more closely during Zapad
In a speech focused on security-related topics marking the start of the new academic year at the Estonian National Defence College in Tartu on Friday, Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces Gen. Riho Terras said that events taking place beyond the border must be observed even more closely during Zapad.
"This year is once again the year of Zapad, which means that we will observe events happening beyond the border even more closely," Terras said according to spokespeople at the Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces.
Even though the risk of a direct military attack against the Baltic states and Poland was low, Estonia, along with its allies, must be alert and prepared to react quickly should the risk situation change.
Editor: Aili Vahtla