August 2015 – 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. 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 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. –Washington Post