NATO-Russia Military Postures and Military Exercises 2015-2016
To secure the rapid deployment capability and allied interoperability demanded by the RAP, the number and type of NATO and allied exercises in northeast Europe have been substantially increased and in the large- scale Noble Jump, Trident Juncture and Allied Shield exercises in 2015, and the Anakonda and Brilliant Capability exercises in 2016, transfers of more than 30,000 NATO troops to ‘forward’ positions in the Baltic Sea region were mounted (IISS 2016b). Although the obligations stipulated by the OSCE Vienna Document for member states to provide advance notification of military exercises (unless the exercises are snap tests of readiness) are being met, given the increased tempo of NATO military exercises in the Baltic Sea region concerns have been expressed that incidents and misunderstandings arising from such exercises close to
Russia’s borders might have the potential to escalate into a more serious conflict. Conducting the annual NATO Baltops naval exercises off the Polish coast in June 2015, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, commander of US Army Europe, conceded that ‘big exercises right on the... (Russian)... border heighten the chance of an accident or something unintended happening’. The Baltops exercise, which involved 49 naval vessels from 17 countries and 5,900 personnel, was conducted only 100 miles from the border with the Russian Federation exclave of Kaliningrad (MacAskill 2015). In a report published by the European Leadership Network in August 2015, a group of fourteen former Russian, German, British, French, Spanish and Turkish foreign ministers called for additional NATO-Russia initiatives to improve notification procedures and ‘rules of the road’ to avoid the possibility of unintended incidents in military exercises triggering an escalation to war (The Moscow Times 2015). This initiative has subsequently been taken forward in a series of publications by the European Leadership Network, underlining the dangers posed by the new military postures and exercises of NATO and Russia (see, for example, Kuleska 2016).
Despite the presentation of the measures agreed at the Wales NATO Summit as ‘the most significant reinforcement of the alliance’s capacity for collective defence since the end of the Cold War’, critics have been unimpressed by the modest scale of NATO’s response (Breedlove 2016: 102-103). They have urged that the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act should be abandoned and a permanent ‘trip-wire’ force of American and West European forces should be established in proximity to the Russian border, that heavy armoured and mechanized forces should be despatched to Germany and Poland, and that NATO's naval forces in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea should be reinforced. Some critics have even advocated the adoption of a ‘preclusive’ forward strategy to defend NATO’s eastern frontier by ‘limited war' and urged the development and deployment of new tactical and theatre nuclear weapons in CEE and the Baltic states (Grygiel and Mitchell 2014a, 2014b; Colby 2015; Kroenig 2015; Colby and Solomon 2015-2016; Giles 2016: 66; Arnold 2016). Responding to some of these criticisms, in early 2016 it was announced that the ‘rotational’ forces of the NRF would be tripled in size to 40,000, with the US contribution trebled from 4,000 to 12,000 troops, that pre-positioned US heavy weapons in eastern Europe would be doubled to 500 units, that the modest Royal Navy presence in the Baltic would be doubled, and that the Pentagon would quadruple the funding of its ERI to $3.4 billion in the 2017 fiscal year, taking that year’s US defence budget to $582.7 billion (Evans 2016; Philp 2016; Arnold 2016).
Confronted by NATO’s enhanced forward military presence in northeastern Europe and the increased tempo of its military exercises along Russia’s borders, unsurprisingly the December 2014 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation identified the build-up of NATO military capabilities and the bringing of NATO military infrastructures to Russia’s borders as direct threats to the national security of the Russian Federation. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that two new divisions would be located in Russia’s Western Military District, promised to add an additional division to the Southern Military District by the end of 2016, and stepped up the tempo of large-scale ‘snap’ military exercises of 30-80,000 Russian troops in territories proximate to Russia’s western borders (IISS 2016a: 164-166). Additionally, Iskander-M short-range surface-surface ballistic missile platforms, S-400 Triompf anti-aircraft systems and K-300 Bastion-P coastal defence anti-ship cruise missiles have been deployed to create Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) bastions in the Crimea, the Kaliningrad region and the Artic, while the Russian air force has undertaken increasingly assertive reconnaissance patrols in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Black Sea and the Arctic, albeit still at a fraction of the mission levels seen in the Cold War (RT 2015; IISS 2015c; Gressel 2015: 12; Kuleska 2016; Fruhling and Lasconjarias 2016).
Against the backdrop of this remilitarization of the NATO-Russia frontier in northeastern Europe, a RAND corporation report of February 2016 confirmed that Russia could overrun NATO’s new ‘trip wire’ forces in the Baltic states in less than three days, in the process inflicting heavy casualties. Noting that when American troops exercise in the Baltic states or Georgia or Ukraine they are operating as close to the Russian heartland as Wehrmacht panzers had reached in 1941-1942, the report concluded: ‘It can be hoped that Russia’s double aggression against Ukraine is the result of a unique confluence of circumstances and that it does not portend a more generally threatening approach to the West’ (Shlapak and Johnson 2016).
The same month also saw the broadcast in the UK of a BBC Two programme, World War Three: Inside the War Room, which traced a hypothetical western response to Russian meddling in the Baltic states, escalating to the brink of nuclear war, and May 2016 saw the publication of 2017. War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command, a fictional work by General Sir Richard Shirreff, former
Deputy Supreme Allied Command Europe, tracing the build up to war between Russia and the West in 2017 (Doctorow 2016; Shirreff 2016). In response to Dmitri Medvedev’s mild observation that the world seemed to be slipping into a ‘New Cold War’, Lithuania’s combative President, Dalia Grybauskaite, a former Komsomol leader and European Union Commissioner, retorted that in view of Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria the West was facing a hot war (Johnston 2016; Trenin 2016a).
In the months running up to the July 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit, following the installation of an interceptor and radar site at Deveselu in Romania in May 2016, completing the second stage of the US/NATO European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) missile defence system, Putin re-emphasized that since the system posed a threat to Russia’s strategic nuclear forces it would be targeted by Russian forces as would the third stage of the system scheduled for installation in Poland in 2018 (IISS 2016c: 213-214; NATO 2016). And in June 2016 it was announced that four multinational battalions, comprising up to 4,000 American, British, German, French and Canadian troops, would be deployed on a rotational basis to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and eastern Poland (Waterfield 2016).
At the July 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit, NATO reiterated its claim that, while the conduct of its military exercises on the very borders of Russia was in conformity with the terms and spirit of the Vienna Document, Russia's calling of large-scale exercises ‘close to NATO territory’ (i.e. just across the Russian border!) were in breach of the spirit of the document. NATO's self-serving conclusion was that it was ‘Russia's exercises, not NATO’s, which are a threat to stability’ (NATO 2015: 11-12; IISS 2016b; The Economist 2016; Lough 2016). Since the Warsaw NATO Summit, calls have been made for renewed and more ambitious NATO military exercises within Russia's A2/AD bastions - a course of action which would certainly intensify the escalatory dynamics of military tensions (Jankowski 2016).
In sum, if the Ukraine crisis and the September 2014 Wales NATO Summit marked the end of NATO's post-Cold War partnership with Russia, the July 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit marked a deepening of the militarization of the NATO-Russian confrontation in Europe. A clash between Russian and NATO armed forces therefore looks more likely now than at any moment over the past 25 years (Trenin 2016b). What, then, of the prospects for European security?