Western military commanders are concerned that large-scale Russian military exercises near the Baltic states in September pose heightened risks for a miscalculation that could trigger a crisis, allied officials said, according to a report from Dow Jones Newswires made available to EFE on Tuesday.
The Russian exercises, which Western officials estimate will involve nearly 100,000 troops, will take place at the same time as military drills by Western forces in Sweden and be the first to roll out after the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization force in the region reaches full strength.
The United States and NATO officers have warned this year's version of Russia's annual Zapad exercises could mark a potential flashpoint reminiscent of the tensions that arose during the Cold War, when drills were warily viewed by both sides as potential cover for a sneak attack.
NATO diplomats and their Russia counterparts will hold a meeting Thursday of the NATO-Russia Council, the alliance announced Tuesday.
While the Zapad exercises aren't on the agenda, the ambassadors are expected to discuss Russia's military buildup in the region, particularly in its Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, and as well as details about the continuing deployment of the NATO force in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The US troops committed to that NATO force will arrive at their training base in Poland on Saturday. German troops are in place in Lithuania and the entire force is due to be operational by the summer.
The alliance force is relatively small at roughly 4,000 troops, but Moscow has criticized it as destabilizing.
The Baltic states have raised concerns about the Zapad exercises, which are being conducted jointly by Russia and Belarus, Dow Jones added in a report supplied to EFE.
Lithuania's president has said they show Moscow is preparing for war with the West.
Allied officials have noted that Russia used military exercises to hide preparations for the annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Many officials are on edge that an error by an alliance or Russian soldier, such as misreading a drill as an aggressive act, could quickly escalate into a crisis if one side were to respond with force.
An incident such as a crashed jet fighter could also raise questions about whether an accident or aggression by the other side occurred.
Senior NATO and US officials say they have precautions in place to minimize the chance of miscalculations.
NATO forces will avoid holding exercises close to the Russian border during the Russian drill.
"We will be alert, we will be very vigilant. But we don't want it to turn into a face-off during their biggest exercise of the year," said Gen. Ben Hodges, the top US Army commander in Europe at a recent training event for the American unit joining the NATO force.
Alexander Grushko, Russia's ambassador to NATO, declined to comment on the Zapad exercises.
But he said the flexible format of Thursday's meeting with the alliance would allow consideration of "issues related to regional security" and other military activities.
Russian officials have expressed hope that the alliance and Moscow are moving to more regular meetings.
September is the traditional month for military exercises and Sweden, a close NATO partner, is planning its biggest military exercise in two decades at the same time.
The Swedish exercise will involve the US and more than a half-dozen NATO allies.
Some 19,000 troops will be involved in practicing for the territorial defense of Sweden, including Gotland Island, which US officials consider critical for ensuring allied access to the Baltic States.
Swedish officials said they were aware of the Zapad exercises and would be using caution to ensure no errors occur.
The US contribution to the NATO force is planning its own exercises, including an August drill with Polish and Lithuanian forces to simulate an operation to keep open the Suwalki Gap on the two countries' border in the event of a Russian incursion.
In an effort to avert miscalculations, the top NATO commander, US Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, will take peacetime control of strategic communications, exercises and force posture.
For the Russians, the Zapad exercise will be a chance to practice detecting, jamming and targeting allied forces with drones and advanced artillery, while spreading disinformation about what its forces are doing _ techniques they already employed in Ukraine.
NATO has long criticized Russia for not opening its exercises up to observers and has said it is far more transparent with its drills.
The two sides have been briefing each other in the NATO-Russia Council sessions about exercises.
Russia has said the Zapad exercise will involve 3,000 troops, below the number requiring notification.
Retired Gen Philip Breedlove, the former top NATO commander, has estimated 100,000 troops, however, and alliance officials have said it would be the largest exercise ever on the border of the Baltic states.
By Julian E. Barnes