RUSSIA has left thousands of troops behind after staging war games in Belarus – despite Vladimir Putin’s promises he wouldn’t.
It has triggered fears that Russia is plotting to invade Baltic states after Ukraine’s Commander in Chief Viktor Muzhenko claimed the president lied about how many of its soldiers were there in the first place.
His comments could increase tension between the two neighbours and contradict the Belarussian defence ministry spokesman, who said the last train of Russian troops and equipment had left Belarus on Thursday.
Russia’s defence ministry did not respond to an immediate request for comment.
Relations between Kiev and Moscow nosedived after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the outbreak of a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 people.
Ukraine sees itself as being at war with Russia and has accused Moscow of sending troops and hardware to fight in the Donbass region, which Moscow denies.
There are frequent casualties despite a notional ceasefire agreed in 2015.
The Zapad wargames, held by Russian and Belarussian troops on territory in both countries in September, are a new source of concern for neighbouring Ukraine and NATO member states on Europe’s eastern flank.
Russia has said the exercise was to rehearse a purely defensive scenario, that the scale of the wargames was in line with international rules, and that allegations it was a springboard to invade Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine were false.
But Muzhenko said the wargames were of an offensive nature. Ukraine staged its own drills in northern Ukraine in response to Zapad and built up troops there.
“I wouldn’t say that the tension has lessened. We can say tension is building up or rising,” he said.
“We had information that they had withdrawn only a few units of the declared 12,500 troops, of which 3,000 were Russians, but there were significantly more of them there.”
Muzhenko said the Russians had withdrawn air units from Belarus to make a show of leaving.
He said: “Russia demonstrated, and it was primarily a demonstration, the return of aviation units — they took off from the airfields and flew to airfields in Russia.
“But we understand that 300-400 km for aviation is a distance that can be overcome in a very short time.”
The 55-year-old, who became Chief of the General Staff in 2014, said Ukraine was still outgunned in terms of its air defence capabilities in the Donbass war and needed air reconnaissance and anti-missile systems.
Kiev is hoping to receive lethal defensive weapons from U.S. President Donald Trump. Muzhenko said talks had been concluded.
“We expect the corresponding decision because all negotiations are over and the relevant issues have been agreed — on the list and types of weapons — and we expect only the political decisions of our partner countries,” he said.
NATO had feared the massive military drills could be seen as “serious preparation for a big war” but the Kremlin was quick to deny they were anything “out of the ordinary” earlier this month.
President Vladimir Putin attended the week-long combat show with Belarus which demonstrated the Russian military’s resurgence and made neighbouring countries nervous.
Putin observed tank attacks, airborne assaults and air raids at the Luzhsky range in western Russia, just 60 miles east of Estonia’s border.
As part of the manoeuvres, the Russians also test-fired their state-of-the-art cruise missile – showcasing the weapon’s extended range and precision strike capability.
Some nervous NATO members, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticised an alleged lack of transparency about the war games and questioned Moscow’s intentions.
The exercises, held in several firing ranges in Belarus and western Russia, run through Wednesday.
Russia and Belarus say 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops are participating, but some NATO countries have estimated that up to 100,000 troops could really be involved.
With Russia’s relations with the West at a post-Cold War low point over the fighting in Ukraine, worries about the war games ranged from allegations that Russia could permanently deploy its forces to Belarus to fears of a surprise onslaught on the Baltics.
Russia and Belarus have said the exercises simulate a response to foreign-backed “extremists” and insisted they don’t threaten anyone.
Their troops are fighting three invented “aggressor countries” Veishnoriya, Lubeniya and Vesbariya. However, the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Poland see the monikers for the made up enemies as thinly disguised references to their nations.
General Petr Pavel, head of NATO’s military committee, said: “All together, what we see is a serious preparation for big war.
“When we only look at the exercise that is presented by Russia there should be no worry.
“But when we look it in the big picture, we have to be worried, because Russia was not transparent.”
NATO has rotated military units in the Baltics and Poland and staged regular drills in the region, activities Moscow has criticized as a reflection of the alliance’s hostile intentions.
The drills involved various branches of the Russian military, including the air force’s long-range bombers and missile forces.
The missile, launched from the Kapustin Yar firing range in southwestern Russia, hit a mock target at a range in Kazakhstan, some 300 miles away, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
The US has accused Russia of developing cruise missiles banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with a goal to threaten US facilities in Europe and the NATO alliance.
Moscow has rejected the accusations and insisted it has adhered to the pact.
The INF Treaty bans an entire class of weapons all land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 310 and 3,410 miles.
The Iskander-M’s stated range puts it just below the pact’s threshold.