This post has been updated to include a response to the report from NATO.
MOSCOW – The Russian military exercises in March spanned the nation’s vast territory – from the high north, far above the Arctic Circle, all the way to territories near Japan. Massive NATO drills a few months later pulled thousands of troops across Europe. After decades of post-Cold War calm, Europe is again becoming a region of high military drama – and according to some experts, a place with a growing risk of accidental confrontation.
Russian soldiers woke in early March to unannounced, snap exercises that eventually grew to encompass more than 80,000 service members. Above the Barents Sea, strategic bombers practiced attacks. Near the Latvian border, airborne troops performed landings as attack helicopters and artillery gave them cover. In the Baltic Sea, the Russian Navy practiced with missiles.
The training was on such a large scale that it could only have been practicing for what would happen during a war with the U.S.-led NATO defense alliance, according to the European Leadership Network, which on Wednesday published a report looking at the increased military exercises on both sides of the Russia-West divide.
The Russian exercises:
The Northern Fleet: Conducts mine-sweeping, anti-submarine and air defense operations in the Barents and Norwegian Seas. Strategic bombers practice attacks with fighter support and airborne units simulate helicopter landings in combat areas. Naval fighters simulate interceptions of enemy aircraft.
Kola Peninsula and Arctic Islands: Airborne and ground units from the interior are redeployed to the Kola Peninsula. Airborne troops land on Russia’s Arctic Islands.
The Baltic Sea fleet: Performed search and destroy simulations, air defense tactics, missile and artillery practice. Naval aviation units conduct night training. Ground units perform nighttime live-fire exercises.
Airborne operations: Airborne troops perform landings near the Latvian border while attack helicopters and artillery conduct fire support for ground forces.
The Black Sea Fleet: Conducts search and destroy simulations, anti-submarine and mine sweeping operations. Marines practice live-fire exercises.
Eastern Front: Ground units conduct simulated combat operations on Sakhalin and Kuril islands.
NATO has also been practicing in eastern Europe, though on a smaller scale. Its Allied Shield exercises in June brought together 15,000 service members from 19 member nations and three partners, and it has stepped up exercises in reaction to Russian threats as a way, NATO leaders say, of deterring Kremlin aggression.
But with communications links between the two sides frayed, intentions can quickly be misread, raising the risk of accidental confrontation, the European Leadership Network argues. And with tensions at their highest since the Cold War – but without Cold-War-era lifelines for communication – there is a greater chance for unpleasant surprises. Already, there have been near-misses with Russian military aircraft getting dangerously close to civilian jetliners above the Baltic Sea.
The NATO exercises:
BALTOPS 15: Baltic Sea naval exercise focusing on amphibious operations in Sweden and Poland. Consisted of 49 ships, 61 aircraft, 1 submarine and 700 landing troops. Operations were conducted near Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad.
Saber Strike 15: Large-scale armored and airborne live-fire operations with close air support involving 6,000 troops in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Estonia.
Trident Joust: Exercises focus on coordination large-scale allied operations and the redeployment of NATO headquarters to the area of those operations.
Noble Jump: First deployment of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force which is to provide a rapid response to infiltration of an allied territory by enemy special forces and irregular personnel. Over 2,100 troops from nine NATO states participated.
The risk of escalation is high, with each side watching the other train, and concluding that even more military exercises are necessary.
“The changed profile of these exercises is a fact and plays a role in sustaining the current climate of fear and tension in Europe,” wrote Ian Kearns, one of the report’s authors.
The group is pushing for more direct links between the two sides, warning each other about the exercises. In the longer run, it says, new arms control efforts would help quell tensions.
NATO has argued that its exercises are simply a defense deterrent, aimed at communicating the alliance’s determination to fight on behalf of nations such as the Baltics that feel threatened by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Russia’s "exercises are part of a more aggressive Russian military doctrine," said NATO deputy spokeswoman Carmen Romero in a statement in response to the report. "In response, NATO has increased its presence in the eastern part of our alliance, in order to enhance collective defense."
She added: "Russia has consistently refused all NATO offers for greater military transparency, dating back to well before the current crisis."
Russian leaders, meanwhile, have long complained of NATO’s expansion to their borders and say that it is a threat to Russia’s own security interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the risk of NATO expansion into Ukraine as one of the reasons last year that he annexed the Crimean Peninsula, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. They, too, may be seeking to deter what they see as an increasingly active alliance – although it did not spark back into life in eastern Europe until after the Russian takeover of Crimea.
The back-and-forth is a "dangerous dynamic," the report’s authors write.
For now, neither side appears likely to back down.