In a bid to dispel Western fears about planned war games by Russia and Belarus, the Russian military said Tuesday the maneuvers simulating a response to foreign-backed "extremists" won't threaten anyone.
The maneuvers, to be held Sept. 14-20 in Belarus and western Russia, have raised NATO concerns. Some alliance members, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticized Moscow for a lack of transparency and questioned its intentions.
Amid spiraling tensions over fighting in Ukraine, Western worries about the planned maneuvers have ranged from allegations that Russia could keep its forces in Belarus after the drills, to fears of a surprise attack on the Baltics.
Russia's Deputy Defense Minister, Lt. Gen. Alexander Fomin, rejected what he described as Western "myths about the so-called Russian threat."
"The most improbable scenarios have been floated," he said at a briefing for foreign military attaches. "Some have reached as far as to claim that the Zapad 2017 exercises will serve as a 'platform for invasion' and 'occupation' of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine."
Fomin said the Russian military will invite foreign observers to the maneuvers, which will involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops, about 70 aircraft, up to 250 tanks, 200 artillery systems and 10 navy ships.
Moscow's assurances, however, have failed to assuage Russia's neighbors, which expect the drills to be far greater in scope than officially declared.
Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik said last month that Moscow could deploy up to 100,000 troops for the maneuvers. Poland's Deputy Defense Minister Michal Dworczyk also questioned Russia's official claims, saying that Warsaw expects many more Russian soldiers and equipment to be deployed.
Speaking Monday on Polish state Radio 1, Dworczyk expressed hope that the exercise "will not include any aggressive scenarios" and won't cause any incidents, adding that "operations on this scale always run this risk."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the alliance will send two observers to the maneuvers, but noted that access offered by Belarus does not constitute real monitoring. He said NATO is seeking "a more thorough way of observing" the drills.
NATO has rotated military units in the Baltics and Poland and held regular drills in the region — activities that Moscow has criticized as a reflection of its hostile intentions.
The alliance has watched Russian military moves with utmost concern following Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Russia had leased a naval base in Crimea prior to its seizure, and used troops deployed there to quickly overtake the Black Sea peninsula.
Speaking in Moscow, Fomin said next month's exercise will simulate a military response to foreign-backed extremist groups and aren't directed against anyone in particular.
"Despite the fact that the bulk of it will be held on the territory of Belarus, we had in mind an imaginary adversary unrelated to any specific region," he said. "According to our estimates, the situation envisaged in the maneuvers' scenario could develop in any part of the world."
Dworczyk, Poland's deputy defense minister, said Warsaw is particularly worried about the possibility that Russia could keep some of its forces in Belarus after the maneuvers.
"Obviously, this would negatively impact the region," he said.
Belarus has maintained close political, economic and military contacts with its giant eastern neighbor. Its authoritarian leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, has relied on cheap Russian oil and billions of dollars in loans to keep the nation's Soviet-style economy afloat.
But relations between the two allies often have been mired in disputes, as Lukashenko has accused the Kremlin of trying to strong-arm Belarus into surrendering control over its most-prized industrial assets.
Belarus hosts a Russian military early warning radar and a navy communications facility, but Lukashenko has resisted Kremlin pressure for hosting a Russian air base. Some in Belarus voiced fears that the base could provide a foothold for Moscow if it decides to annex its neighbor, like what happened in Crimea.
The flamboyant Belarusian leader has hailed bilateral military cooperation and criticized NATO's moves, but he has refused to recognize Crimea as part of Russia. He also failed to follow suit when Moscow acknowledged Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after a brief 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based independent military analyst, said that while Moscow would certainly like to permanently station its forces in Belarus, Lukashenko will strongly oppose such a move because that could put his nation in cross-fire in case of a conflict between Russia and NATO.
"The possibility of a permanent Russian military deployment in Belarus appears unlikely," Golts said.
Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst in Minsk, agreed.
"Lukashenko is involved in a delicate balancing act, trying to show his loyalty to the Kremlin without damaging ties with the West," he said.
The chief of the Belarusian military's General Staff, Oleg Belokonev, pledged Tuesday that all Russian troops involved in the maneuvers will leave Belarus by the end of September.
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, contributed to this report.