TALLINN (Reuters) - Germany said on Thursday that Russia was planning to send more than 100,000 troops to war games on NATO's eastern flank this month, disputing Moscow's version that only 13,000 Russian and Belarussian servicemen would participate.
The Sept. 14-20 exercises known as Zapad, or "West" in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, are stirring unease in NATO despite Moscow's assurances troops would rehearse a purely defensive scenario.
"It is undisputed that we are seeing a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians," German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters at an EU defense ministers' meeting in Tallinn.
"Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of participating forces in the Zapad exercise: more than one hundred thousand," she said in a joint news conference with her French counterpart Florence Parly.
(For a graphic on Russia's Zapad war games click tmsnrt.rs/2xQtYwH)
While Baltic nations have voiced concerns about a bigger-than-reported exercise and while NATO's secretary-general expects more than 13,000 troops, Von der Leyen's remarks are the first time a top Western politician has called out Russia publicly on what NATO sees as the true size of the war games.
Such numbers would be legal under international treaties on war games, but would require inviting international observers.
With less than 13,000 troops, international observation of the drills is not mandatory, Russia says.
In a sign of efforts to contain tensions, NATO general Petr Pavel held his first face-to face meeting in more than two years with Russia's top general, Valery Gerasimov, in Azerbaijan on Thursday, the alliance said.
NATO said in a statement the meeting showed "a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication."
"DEMONSTRATION OF FORCE"?
An exercise on that scale is one of NATO's most pressing concerns. France, for one, believes the war games are no simple military drill, even though Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin told Western military attaches in Moscow in August the West had nothing to fear.
Russia accuses NATO of building up forces on its frontiers in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War. But NATO says it is protecting the interests of member states bordering Russia who are troubled by Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and links to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Previous large-scale exercises in 2013 employed special forces training, longer-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that were later used in the Crimea annexation and in actions in eastern Ukraine and Syria, NATO diplomats said.
"Russia has a global strategy of a visible, deliberate demonstration of force," Parly said before heading to meet French troops in Estonia as part of NATO's deployment of deterrent forces in the Baltics and Poland.
"They have a strategy of intimidation," Parly said, warning that any attack on a Baltic country or Poland by Russia would be considered an attack on all of the U.S.-led NATO alliance.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Andrew Heavens)