— -- Video has emerged of a Russian attack helicopter seeming to fire on a group of bystanders during the major military exercises Russia has been holding over the past week.
Two videos of the episode show a man standing by some cars and military vehicles in a wooded area and looking up at two KA-52 Alligator helicopters as they approach. As the helicopters near, rockets fly from one of them toward the man, exploding and throwing debris over the camera.
The Russian website 66.ru, which first published one of the videos, reported two people were injured in the blast, though Kremlin officials have not confirmed injuries.
The episode reportedly took place at the same firing range where on Monday, President Vladimir Putin watched artillery and aircraft conduct drills as part of the huge Zapad 2017 exercises, which have drawn intense attention in recent weeks and worried countries in Eastern Europe.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that the videos showing the episode were authentic but said it did not occur on the day Putin was present for the large-scale demonstrations and suggested it was unconnected to Zapad.
A ministry spokesperson told the Russian news agency Interfax that the helicopter’s targeting system mistakenly locked onto one of the parked vehicles while the aircraft were taking part in a different army exercise and practicing hitting ground targets.
The ministry, however, insisted it happened at “a different time” from the day Putin was present and refused to confirm the location.
“On 18 September within the bounds of the staging the episode of the practical actions of the Zapad 17 strategic exercises, there were no incidents connected with the work of army aviation,” the ministry told Interfax.
Accounts in the Russian media, though, seem to tell a different story. Reports confirmed the episode occurred at the same firing range, though possibly some days earlier. The leading business newspaper, Kommersant, quoted defense sources as saying it took place at the Luzhsky firing range close to St. Petersburg, but two days earlier, on Sept. 16. According to the sources, three people were lightly injured, two cars were damaged, and the military is carrying out an investigation. A local St. Petersburg news website, Fontanka.ru also cited sources who said it happened at Luzhsky.
A Ministry of Defense press release last Sunday, the night before Putin arrived, said that Zapad exercises with Ka-52 helicopters carried out rocket strikes on ground targets at the Luzhsky range.
The second video appears to show the rockets striking an military truck, dug in under camouflage netting. Civilian cars are parked around it.
The heavily armed Ka-52 helicopters took part in the grandiose demonstration watched by Putin on Monday, which included dozens of aircraft, artillery and tanks pretending to repel a NATO-like enemy. The Zapad exercises, conducted with Belarus, have discomforted the neighboring Baltic states and Poland, which, after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, see them as a threat.
Russia insists the exercises, which take place every four years, are entirely defensive. But NATO has accused Russia of deliberately underreporting the numbers of troops taking part; Moscow says no more than 13,000 are involved, while NATO officials have said it could be as high as 100,000.