Nato flexes mus­cles with war games

Rus­sia set to re­ply in kind

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD - FOR­EIGN POL­ICY

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.

PIC­TURE: EPA

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.

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