More than 40,000 troops in Russian war games, US general says

Brussels (AFP) - A senior US general said Monday that he believed controversial Russian military exercises last month involved "more than 40,000" troops, vastly more than Moscow acknowledged, but the event did not involve a simulated nuclear strike.

General Ben Hodges, commander of US ground forces in Europe, said Russia split up the Zapad-2017 (West-2017) drills into smaller events to flout international agreements on reporting military exercises.

The Russian defence ministry said the joint drills with Belarus on NATO's eastern flank involved just 12,700 troops and were "strictly defensive" in nature, but the show of strength caused consternation in Poland and the Baltic states, which only broke free of the Kremlin's grip some 25 years ago.

"My guess is that there probably were over 40,000 service members in this whole-of-government exercise," Hodges told reporters.

He said Moscow broke up the exercises into smaller drills to skirt international protocols allowing foreign observers to inspect events involving more than 13,000 troops. NATO was invited to send observers to so-called visitors' days.

"But in fact from a professional military standpoint these were all connected," Hodges said.

In the run-up to Zapad, NATO complained about Russian secrecy surrounding the event, warning that Moscow could be hugely underreporting the scale of the exercises. Estonia, Lithuania and Germany all said they thought about 100,000 troops would take part.

The war games came with tensions between Russia and NATO at their highest since the Cold War due to the Kremlin's meddling in Ukraine and the US-led alliance bolstering its forces in eastern Europe.

The last two editions of Zapad, in 2009 and 2013, involved a simulated nuclear strike against Warsaw according to various officials, though NATO itself has never said this.

Hodges said that this time, Russian nuclear drills began after the conclusion of Zapad.

"I did not see in the scenario what I had seen before, where the scenario starts off with nuclear strike on a Western city," he said.

The exercises also involved a display of Russia's "powerful, sophisticated" electronic warfare techniques, the US general added, without giving further details.