MOSCOW (Dispatches) -The army forces of Russia and Belarus have started joint military drills in the Baltic Sea and across the territory of their countries, causing alarm in some European Union states and NATO countries.
The week-long military exercises, dubbed Zapad-2021, began on Thursday, with top military leaders from the two countries attending the opening ceremony of the war games in western Russia.
The Russian defense ministry said up to 200,000 military personnel, some 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 15 ships and nearly 300 tanks would take part.
The ministry added that the live fire drills, which mark the culmination of a bigger three-month exercise, involve military personnel from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said the drills were purely defensive in nature and would give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective militaries work together.
The exercise, which comes at a time of heightened tensions between the West and Belarus, will run until September 16.
NATO officials have warned that the drills increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could foment a crisis.
The opening ceremony of the war games on Thursday coincided with talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, in the Kremlin.
Lukashenko won a sixth term in office in a presidential election in August 2020. His main political rival, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, protested the result, claiming there had been voter fraud. Western governments quickly came out in her support, repeating the allegations of vote-rigging.
The U.S., the EU, Britain, and Canada recently imposed a series of new sanctions on Belarusian entities and officials in a coordinated response to the grounding of an intra-EU flight in Minsk.
Lukashenko has shrugged off the Western pressure with backing from key ally Russia. Minsk has also warned that it might be forced to take reciprocal measures that could in turn adversely affect the citizens and businesses of Western countries.