In 2017, a Russian KA-52 attack helicopter opened fire on a crowd of journalists and spectators during a training exercise meant as a massive show of force on NATO’s eastern border. This incident was initially denied by Russian officials until footage and first-hand accounts emerged online.
According to Russian and independent reports in 2017, no one was killed in the incident, though three people were seriously injured.
The Zapad exercises
Once every four years, the Russian military participates in a large-scale series of training exercises in Belarus and the surrounding region known as Zapad, which translates to “west.” These drills often draw a great deal of attention from Western officials. Firstly, because they indicate the way Russia would likely go about waging war with NATO countries. And secondly, because they offer Russia the ability to ship and leave a significant amount of firepower within striking distance of a number of NATO allies, and as we’ve come to see, within striking distance of Ukraine as well.
Prompting further concern about these drills, Russia has repeatedly understated their size, and as such, the number of troops sent to participate.
In 2013, for instance, Russian officials notified NATO that they would send some 13,000 troops to the area to participate in the Zapad war games. However, once the drills commenced, satellite imaging showed that Russia had sent close to 90,000 troops, prompting fears that the drills were really a cover for a build-up of forces on NATO’s eastern flank. Those concerns, while not justified at the time, were proven viable when Russia used the same training claims to mass troops on Ukraine’s border late in 2021 and prior to the invasion in 2022.
These concerns tend to draw the lion’s share of attention in the weeks leading up to each Zapad iteration, and 2017 was no different. NATO officials believed the event would draw more Russian troops than ever (though it ultimately didn’t). As reports emerged of Russian forces using electronic warfare technology to jam communications in the Baltic nations closest to the drills, those concerns were further exacerbated.
It is widely believed that Russian forces utilized equipment left in the region during the 2013 Zapad drills to aid in their military annexation of Crimea in 2014. As a result, some seemingly incredible events that unfolded were lost in a sea of headlines about the possible ramifications of the drills.
One such incident during Zapad ’17 was the Russian Ka-52 attack helicopter opening fire on a crowd of spectators that were there to watch the training take place.
The Russian helicopter opens fire
As reports of this incident surfaced online, Russian officials immediately claimed the stories were nothing but propaganda, which is a common approach among Russian leadership when it comes to embarrassing incidents.
“No incidents involving army aviation happened in playing an episode of practical actions during the Zapad 2017 strategic exercise on Sept. 18,” said the news service of Russia’s Western Military District.
Of course, it wasn’t long before footage of the incident surfaced, along with accounts reported by some media outlets within Russia’s borders.
“At least two cars burned down, two people were seriously injured, they are now hospitalized,” Russian news outlet 66.RU quoted an unnamed source as saying.
“The victims were most likely journalists.”
The Moscow Times corroborated this story, though they claimed three people were seriously injured, rather than two. It seems clear that the incident was unintentional, and was likely caused by confusion between the pilot of the single-seat attack helicopter and the command and control elements nearby. This would not be the first or the last high-profile incident involving friendly fire and the Russian military.
In 2015, a Russian MiG-31 Foxhound shot down a fellow Russian MiG using an R-33 long-range air-to-air missile in a training exercise near the Mongolian border. Russian officials attempted to cover up the incident, but reports finally reached the media in 2017, the same year as the above helicopter incident. Last year, a Russian Su-35S participating in a training exercise accidentally shot down a Russian Su-30 when it opened fire with its 30mm canon loaded with live rounds. And just recently in Ukraine, Russian air defense forces shot down an advanced $50 million Su-34M fighter bomber that had just been delivered to the Russian Air Force a few weeks prior.
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