Russia and Belarus begin active phase of huge war games

Russian service members attend a ceremony opening the military exercise Zapad-2021 staged by the the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Brest Region, Belarus September 9, 2021. Picture taken September 9, 2021. Vadim Yakubyonok/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

Russia and ex-Soviet ally Belarus on Friday launched the active phase of vast military exercises involving 200,000 personnel that have alarmed Ukraine and some NATO nations.

The "Zapad-2021" war games, taking place on Russia's and Belarus's western flanks, are due to run until next Thursday. Moscow released footage of warships and tanks opening fire and fighter jets taking off.

The manoeuvres, the culmination of a three-month exercise, are held every four years.

Service members march during a ceremony opening the military exercise Zapad-2021 staged by the the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Brest Region, Belarus September 9, 2021. The ceremony also involved military personnel from Kazakhstan. Picture taken September 9, 2021. Vadim Yakubyonok/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

At talks with his Belarusian counterpart on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin denied the exercises were directed against any foreign power, but said they were entirely logical given what he said was increasing NATO activity near Russia's borders and those of its allies.

The Western NATO alliance, whose officials have said Russia has regularly underreported the size of the exercises in the past, has urged Russia to be transparent and said it will be watching closely.

Russia sees Belarus as a strategically important buffer to its west, and helped to keep President Alexander Lukashenko in power with loans and political backing as he cracked down on huge protests last year and arrested or drove out opposition figures.

Russian service members attend a ceremony opening the military exercise Zapad-2021 staged by the the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Brest Region, Belarus September 9, 2021. Picture taken September 9, 2021. Vadim Yakubyonok/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

Putin and Lukashenko are due to inspect the exercises personally, according to Belarusian state media, though it was not clear when that would happen.

Russia's Defence Ministry said the active phase of the drills would take place at nine sites in Russia and five sites in Belarus. The exercises involve 200,000 personnel, 80 planes and helicopters, 290 tanks and 15 naval ships, it says.

Military personnel from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia are also due to participate.

Indian service members attend a ceremony opening the military exercise Zapad-2021 staged by the the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Mulino training ground in Nizhny Novgorod Region, Russia, September 9, 2021. The drills also involve military personnel from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. Picture taken September 9, 2021. Vadim Savitskiy/Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Russian service members attend a ceremony opening the military exercise Zapad-2021 staged by the the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Mulino training ground in Nizhny Novgorod Region, Russia, September 9, 2021. The drills also involve military personnel from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. Picture taken September 9, 2021. Vadim Savitskiy/Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

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