By David Filipov / The Washington Post
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Russian media reported Tuesday that three people were wounded at major Russian military exercises when a helicopter accidentally fired a rocket at a crowd of invited spectators.
The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed the report as a “purposeful provocation or someone’s personal stupidity.”
The state-owned NTV television station cited what it described as an official report detailing the Sunday incident involving a state-of-the-art Ka-52 attack helicopter. The report said that the spectators were not seriously injured, and two cars were also destroyed.
The report gave no other details on the civilians purported to be injured. Journalists, veterans’ groups and other were allowed to watch portions of the Russian war games.
Earlier, the news site 66.ru reported that two spectators had been hospitalized with serious injuries. Both reports included a video purportedly showing the incident, which they said happened at an exercise at a firing range near St. Petersburg during the war games, known as Zapad-2017.
The Defense Ministry denial cited Sept. 18, a different day that the claimed incident in the NTV report. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.
“No incidents involving army aviation happened in playing an episode of practical actions during the Zapad 2017 strategic exercise on Sept. 18,” said the Western Military District press service, which is affiliated with the Defense Ministry.
The military report cited by NTV says that on Sept. 16 a lieutenant colonel and a senior lieutenant carried out a sortie at 2:47 p.m. from an aerodrome to practice live fire combat exercises.
The report said a C-8 rocket was fired accidentally while the Ka-52 helicopter was traveling at 120 mph at an altitude of 150 feet.
On Monday, a large crowd of military observers and more than 100 journalists, including The Washington Post, were present at the exercises, along with President Vladimir Putin. The 45-minute simulated battle went off without incident.
The Zapad-2017 exercises have featured an impressive show of forces as Russian and Belarusan military units simulate the response to an attack by an imaginary “Western Coalition.” The muscle-flexing, which began Thursday, highlights the scope of a fighting force that has taken a crash course of reforms and upgrades over the last decade.
Leaders of the Baltic nations that would be on NATO’s front line in a land war with Russia have said this year’s edition of Zapad, which means “West,” appears to be a simulation of an attack against NATO forces in Eastern Europe.
Moscow has insisted that the exercises, which are held every four years, would rehearse a strictly defensive scenario and involve no more than 12,700 troops, just below the level that would require Russia to allow NATO observers under an international agreement. NATO leaders have said that the exercise may actually involve up to 100,000 troops.
For Russia, the exercises are a chance to exhibit the new strength of its military, which has undergone a decade-long modernization and deeply desires to shed its reputation as the creaky, inefficient successor of the Soviet Red Army.