Nato flexes muscles with war games
Russia set to reply in kind
TENS of thousands of troops are on the move from the Baltic to the Black Sea, as Nato and Russia start a series of massive military exercises the size of which the continent hasn’t seen since the Cold War.
Both sides claim the drills, which involve aircraft, warships, tanks and artillery, are purely defensive in nature. But it is clear the exercises are also meant to show off new capabilities and technologies, and display not only the strength of alliances, but how swiftly troops and heavy equipment can move to counter a threat at the frontier.
The most ambitious undertaking on the Nato side is Saber Guardian 17, a series of more than a dozen distinct battle drills being carried out by 25 000 troops from 20 countries moving across Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
The scenario presented to ground commanders is that a technologically advanced land force has pushed into Nato territory and is threatening the alliance as a whole.
The drills include air defence tests, live fire tank engagements, long advances by armoured columns, fighter planes and helicopters supporting ground movements, electronic warfare, and airdrops.
“Deterrence is about capability, it’s about making sure that any potential adversary knows that we are prepared to do whatever is necessary,” US Army Europe commander Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges said during the exercise.
“What escalates tensions is when we look weak, not connected, not prepared, that is what invites aggression.”
But increasing military capability doesn’t have to mean war, he added. “The Russians only respect strength, so if we demonstrate cohesion, if we demonstrate that we are together, that we are prepared, then I think we don’t have to worry.”
The general’s blunt comments underscore the planning for Saber Guardian, which doesn’t name Russia as the adversary, but clearly has the Kremlin in mind. The scenario revolves around an incursion into Nato territory by a militarily advanced enemy intent on seizing the economic assets of Black Sea countries.
On the other side of the deterrent fence stands Russia, which is preparing to surge as many as 100000 troops into the field in a series of drills dubbed Zapad, or “West” in the coming weeks.
The Kremlin claims about 12700 troops will be active in Belarus and Russia for Zapad. But experts and Nato officials say Moscow is more likely to conduct a series of engagements that will swell those ranks by tens of thousands. Under the Vienna Document agreement of 2011, foreign observers must be present for any exercise that exceeds 13 000 troops.
By coming in under that number while conducting several other large drills at the same time, Moscow can avoid the presence of observers and control the narrative of how its troops performed.
But Nato is wary. Given that Russia used a massive military exercise in 2014 to obscure its incursion into Crimea, and invaded South Ossetia in Georgia in 2008 during another exercise that covered troop movements, the alliance is keeping a close eye on Zapad.
“From previous exercises, we have every reason to believe there may be substantially more troops participating than the official quoted numbers,” Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said recently when asked about Zapad.
“We don’t consider this year’s Zapad exercise in itself to be a direct threat to (Nato) or a cover for an attack,” added Kristjan Prikk, undersecretary for defence policy at Estonia’s Ministry of Defence during a conference in Washington on July 11. “But we have to keep in mind that the Russians have the nasty habit of hiding their actual military endeavours behind exercises.”
Moscow claimed about 22 000 troops took part in the last Zaad in 2014, but outside observers later concluded that up to 70 000 had been involved.
Nato paratroopers prepare for a jump during an airborne exercise, as part of the Saber Guardian 2017 war games taking place across Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.