Russia on Thursday began huge joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union's eastern flank in a show of strength that has rattled nervous NATO members.
Named Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the manoeuvres are scheduled to last until September 20. They are being conducted on the territory of Moscow's closest ally Belarus, in Russia's European exclave of Kaliningrad and in its frontier Pskov and Leningrad regions.
Moscow says the drills involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 battleships testing their firepower against an imaginary foe close to borders with Poland and the Baltic States.
Russia's defence ministry insisted the manoeuvres were "of a strictly defensive nature and are not directed against any other state or group of countries."
But NATO claims Russia has kept it in the dark and could be massively underreporting the scale of the exercises, which some of the alliance's eastern members say involves more than 100,000 servicemen.
The war games come 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.
Moscow has dismissed fears over the drills -- the latest in a series of annual exercises that rotate around the vast country -- as fuelled by the "myth about the so-called 'Russian threat'".
But for NATO and its allies, especially jittery members such as Poland and the Baltic States which only broke free from Moscow's grip 25 years ago, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.
"We have seen before that military exercises have been used as a disguise for aggressive actions against neighbours," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Russia's state-run RIA Novosti new agency released Thursday.
"We don't see an imminent threat against any NATO ally, but the best way for Russia to help to reduce tensions and to avoid or prevent misunderstandings, miscalculations, is to be transparent."
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said her country could not ignore "the offensive nature of the Zapad exercise."
Poland meanwhile expressed concern that Russia could leave some of the equipment and troops in Belarus.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman defended Russia's right to hold exercises and rejected accusations the authorities had not been transparent.
Moscow has held a stream of exercises since ties with the West plunged in 2014 over Ukraine, with the military claiming some drills included nearly 100,000 troops.
The Kremlin has long blamed Washington for ratcheting up tensions by expanding NATO up to its borders and holding its own provocative drills.
The Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint military exercises with the US and a host of other NATO countries.
Iran and Russia are traditional allies, so it should come as no surprise that as Iran continues to come in from the cold as sanctions are lifted, they would look to further develop their economic and political ties. In the latest initiative, Russian banks are at the forefront of a drive to enter Iran’s banking system. Crucially, Iran recognises after the years of sanctions that its banking sector is, in some aspects, deficient and is looking to Russia to introduce a broad range of financial products for both retail and commercial clients, to assist in its overhaul and redevelopment.
It has been reported that their respective central banks have been in talks about further cooperation and that as many as a dozen Russian banks are looking at entering the Iranian banking system. Historically there have been close ties between them, both in terms of trade and commerce as well as interbank cooperation. Sanctions put pay to those initiatives, but that is beginning to change. In recent years, bilateral trade has been conducted in either dollars or euros utilising intermediaries such as the UAE.
A by-product of the sanctions has seen many Iranian organisations conducting their trade through a network of overseas subsidiaries but there is evidence that this is beginning to change as business looks to return to Iran in a post sanctions world.
Unsurprisingly there is a desire for future trade between these nations to be either in the Iranian rial or the Russia ruble. The removal of the reliance on the dollar and the euro would circumvent the need to rely on the European and American central banking systems.
The entry of Russian banks into the Iranian market would clearly assist in this process of de-dollarisation, allowing Iranian companies to buy Russian goods in rubles and it is felt that the move can be reciprocated in terms of the Iranian rial in Russia.
Twenty-nine years ago record drought and fires hit the West and no one seemed to notice. Frustrated, I sent query letters to the three largest East Coast newspapers, and to my surprise, The New York Times answered. My article on the West’s drought and fires ran in August 1988 in the New York Times Magazine and was syndicated and distributed world-wide.
Two main factors are at play here. One, is drought. Some parts of Eastern Montana have had only one inch of rain all year. Number two, is federal forest policies.