Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s commander in Europe, accuses Russia of fiddling with the numbers in order to keep foreign observers away from the upcoming exercise Zapad 2017, according to The Baltic Times:
“The Russians had not given us a lot of reason to trust the numbers that they say. But again, the exercise hasn’t happened yet, so we don’t know what they are going to do,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges said at a joint news conference with Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis in Vilnius.
Moscow says that Zapad 2017 will involve fewer than 13,000 troops, but NATO officials think that the 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.
If more than 13,000 troops are involved, Russia and Belarus are obligated to invite observers from OSCE countries. Speculations are that as many as 60,000-100,000 Russian troops could be involved, making Zapad 2017 the largest exercise since the Cold War.
The Russian word “Zapad” means “West”, indicating that it is a geographically limited exercise in the Western part of the country. Belarus actually did invite observers to the exercise to be held on its territory (link in Estonian), but no observers were invited to oversee the simultaneous exercises that take place across Russia, which possibly involve many more troops than indicated in official statements.
The same tactics were used during Zapad 2013, where officially 10,000 troops participated but an estimated 70,000 troops actually were involved.