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Russia Begins 6 Days Of Military War Games With Ally Belarus


Let's head overseas now and talk about Russia, Russia which today begins six days of military war games with its neighbor and ally, Belarus. Belarus happens to be strategically located on the border with U.S. NATO allies Lithuania and Poland. And this is expected to be the biggest show of Russian military might since the Cold War. Russia says these war games are of a, quote, "entirely defensive nature." Western defense officials have their doubts. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is with us now to help us sort through all this. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KELLY: How big are these exercises? And if you were sitting there watching them unfold from, say, Vilnius or Warsaw, should you be a little bit nervous?

KIM: Well, there's some debate about how big they're going to be. The Russian Defense Ministry says that they will involve less than 13,000 troops, which is below - just below the threshold for international monitors. But the problem is the level of trust is very low. And just last week, the German defense minister said she thinks as many as 100,000 troops could be involved. So you see there's quite a big discrepancy.

KELLY: So debate just over the size of this. And then in terms of location, we said this is going to all unfold in Belarus. Remind us, what is the relationship these days between Belarus and Russia?

KIM: Well, I think Belarus in some ways could be called Europe's forgotten country. It became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but it's kept very close ties to Russia. It's been run by one man - his name is Alexander Lukashenko - for more than 20 years. And he's been playing this constant balancing act between the West and Russia. He depends on cheap Russian oil, so he doesn't really have much of a choice. The opposition to Lukashenko in Belarus is very worried about these exercises. They think it could be a kind of Trojan horse for bringing in Russian troops and equipment who simply won't leave afterwards.

KELLY: And is it clear? We said Russia is saying that this is an entirely defensive nature. It's going to be below the threshold for international monitors. What are they saying they do want to get out of these exercises?

KIM: Well, I mean, from the Russian perspective, the region where these exercises are being held is far behind the NATO frontline during the Cold War. And now today, you know, Poland, the Baltic countries are all in NATO. Since the beginning of the year, the U.S., along with other Western allies, have actually stationed troops in the region. Of course, NATO says that's a deterrent force that was made necessary by Russia's annexation of Crimea and that, of course, those troops are in no position to attack or threaten Russia.

But it just really shows the level of tension. I mean, Ukraine this week is also holding exercises. So is traditionally neutral Sweden. And so from Russia's point of view, it's, you know, showing that they're present and that they're certainly not going to back down.

KELLY: And you mentioned fear that this is some sort of Trojan horse, that people on the ground there are worried about that. I wonder, is that also a fear from the U.S. point of view, that Moscow may send these troops - however many there are - but may send these troops into Belarus and then not pull them out?

KIM: Well, certainly from the U.S. perspective, that is a fear. I mean, the tensions are so high right now. We talk a lot about, you know, tensions with North Korea, the war in Afghanistan, the air campaign in Syria. And I think we sometimes overlook actually the U.S. involvement in Europe since the Ukraine conflict started. Europe - the U.S. is now present in the Baltic States. It's actually leading a battle group in Poland, and it's participating in those exercises in Ukraine and Sweden. So far from detaching itself from Europe as people feared when President Trump came into office, the U.S. is actually very closely intertwined with its allies here.

KELLY: And we're just reminding - the memories of Ukraine and Crimea are still fresh. This would not be a first for Russia to put troops somewhere and then not pull them out. That's NPR's Lucian Kim updating us from Moscow. Lucian, thank you.

KIM: Great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.