NATO is again prac­tic­ing for the worst

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - ANNE APPLEBAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

Scruffy, yel­low­ish-brown build­ings are bunched around a long court­yard; por­ta­ble toi­lets and gen­er­a­tors have been set up on the dusty ground be­side. In­side, mil­i­tary­grade lap­tops, the kind that don’t break if you drop them, are ar­rayed along a se­ries of ta­bles, their ca­bles spool­ing off onto the floor. Men from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, some dressed in cam­ou­flage, talk in low voices. A large map of Eu­rope’s Baltic coast has been pro­jected onto one of the walls, with dif­fer­ent col­ored mark­ers scat­tered across it.

This, dear read­ers, is the transat­lantic al­liance. But this is not the transat­lantic al­liance in the­ory, the one peo­ple are dis­cussing right now, with so much con­cern, from Wash­ing­ton to Tallinn to Mon­treal. This is the transat­lantic al­liance in prac­tice. It’s the tem­po­rary head­quar­ters of Tro­jan Foot­print, the largest NATO spe­cial forces train­ing ex­er­cise in re­cent mem­ory, an op­er­a­tion in­volv­ing more than 2,000 con­ven­tional and un­con­ven­tional troops from more than a dozen coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ger­many, Bri­tain, Canada, Bel­gium, and even Swe­den. It doesn’t look like much from the out­side, and that’s partly the point: it was set up dis­creetly, out­side a non­de­script Pol­ish vil­lage. Now that it’s over, the por­ta­ble toi­lets and gen­er­a­tors will be re­moved, the men and the lap­tops will go home.

This ex­er­cise was sort of un­der­cover — I’ve been asked not to tell you the name of the Pol­ish vil­lage — but not en­tirely. The 10th Spe­cial Forces Group, the Green Berets, who were run­ning the op­er­a­tion, are happy for po­ten­tial ag­gres­sors to know it took place. In par­tic­u­lar, they are happy for the large coun­try just to the east of Poland, Lithua­nia, Latvia and Es­to­nia to know they are plan­ning and prac­tic­ing for all pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios, up to and in­clud­ing fend­ing off a full-scale in­va­sion.

This is not, as Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda would have it, be­cause they want a war. This is be­cause they do not want a war. “Ul­ti­mately, it’s about de­ter­rence,” Col. Lawrence Fer­gu­son, the Amer­i­can com­man­der of the op­er­a­tion told me. “We’re say­ing: Here’s the price you would have to pay, this is the ‘bit­ter pill’ you would have to swal­low.”

The Green Berets have been think­ing about how to de­ter in­va­sion in Eu­rope since the 1950s, though for the past 20 years, their at­ten­tion has mostly been else­where. More re­cently, the Rus­sian mil­i­tary buildup, the Rus­sian in­va­sion of Ukraine (Fer­gu­son de­scribes that as a “wake-up call”), as well as the in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of anti-Euro­pean pro­pa­ganda in the Rus­sian me­dia and a se­ries of large-scale Rus­sian mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, have set off warn­ing bells in NATO cap­i­tals. That is es­pe­cially true here in the Baltic re­gion, be­cause when the Rus­sian mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, it prac­tices an in­va­sion of the Baltic states.

If this were ever to hap­pen in real life — sparked by a real po­lit­i­cal in­ci­dent, or per­haps a fake one — the first phase might end quickly: The Baltic states are tiny, and could be over­run by Rus­sian forces within hours. That’s why NATO spe­cial forces re­hearsed the next steps: how to con­duct re­con­nais­sance, how to bring ir­reg­u­lar troops into the re­gion, how they might meet up once they got there, what they might do.

Be­cause the real next step would in­volve pop­u­lar re­sis­tance, civic or­ga­ni­za­tions were part of the ex­er­cise, too. Lt. Gen. Leonids Kal­nins, the chief of na­tional de­fense in Latvia, told me that his coun­try’s na­tional guard, which in­cludes civil­ians who iden­tify as both Lat­vian and eth­nic Rus­sian, is a crit­i­cal part of the coun­try’s mil­i­tary: “Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda uses eth­nic groups as the main tool to sep­a­rate the so­ci­ety. We con­sider this to be hybrid war­fare and are fight­ing against it.” Be­cause on­line dis­in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tions are now part of any con­flict, too, some of the sol­diers in the ex­er­cise used a kind of ar­ti­fi­cial In­ter­net to prac­tice their re­sponses. The point of all these things is to learn lessons, to fig­ure out what doesn’t work, to find so­lu­tions — and, of course, to build re­la­tion­ships that some­day might save lives.

Though no­body planned it this way, the tim­ing of this ex­er­cise was sig­nif­i­cant. It is no se­cret that, looked at from a greater dis­tance, the West­ern al­liance is in deep trou­ble, maybe never more so than this week­end. The Amer­i­can pres­i­dent has used a Group of Seven meet­ing to stage a pub­lic fight with Canada and his Euro­pean al­lies; he has set out, de­lib­er­ately, to un­der­mine West­ern trade. A part of the Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal class is al­ready ask­ing whether Rus­sia might be a bet­ter part­ner than the United States. For the fore­see­able fu­ture, the news com­ing out about U.S.-Euro­pean re­la­tions is go­ing to be bad — maybe very bad.

So think of this col­umn as a form of re­as­sur­ance. Even as you read about fights be­tween Pres­i­dents Trump and Em­manuel Macron of France, even as you read about the dam­age the White House is do­ing to the cause of democ­racy more gen­er­ally, re­mem­ber this: In var­i­ous quiet cor­ners of Eu­rope, small groups of Amer­i­cans and Eu­ro­peans are still de­vot­ing their time to one an­other’s mu­tual safety. If a cri­sis comes, we might need them.

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