The Careful Balancing Act of Military Exercises Image courtesy of U.S. Navy

The Careful Balancing Act of Military Exercises

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While military training exercises are a common practice for most nations, their size, frequency, and proximity to adversarial borders has been noticeably increasing, and in turn, their capacity to heighten tensions and trigger conflict.

The Russian Navy recently completed its biggest military training in the Pacific Ocean since the end of the Cold War. Russian vessels reportedly came within 30 nautical miles of Hawaii, prompting the U.S. to scramble fighter jets. Similarly, Ukraine and the United States just completed co-hosting Exercise Sea Breeze, an annual multinational naval exercise in the Black Sea that has been held since 1997. Thirty two countries participated in total, making this year’s exercise the largest iteration in its history. Sea Breeze 21 prompted an agitated response from Russia; the Kremlin quickly labelled the trainings as “anti-Russian” and “provocative” and put on its own show of force, deploying warplanes and testing surface-to-air missile systems in Crimea.

Military simulations are designed to test tactics and provide practical training and experience through fabricated scenarios that may occur in real life. Additionally, they are an opportunity for multinational forces to learn how to work together, bolster procedure efficiency, and improve defense reforms. Beyond military advancements, joint exercises strengthen ties with other participant countries and international organizations, which in turn demonstrate multilateral cohesion. Presenting a united front can underline a country’s commitment to its allies or a region and can deter adversaries. In the case of Sea Breeze 21, the exercise sent a pointed signal to the Kremlin that the Black Sea remains outside its explicit control despite Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and that Ukraine still enjoys Western military support.

Sea Breeze 21 was framed as a non-reactive defense exercise. However, in the current state of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia, recent military exercises have become a delicate balancing act that can easily tip. Shying away from hostile regions or bowing to Russian objections can limit the United States’ deterrence capabilities or be interpreted as appeasement. Conversely, overly aggressive demonstrations of power could push Russia too far and provoke Putin into raising the stakes — a credible risk. Although Russia may not be equipped to engage in a war of attrition, its latest build-up of over 100,000 troops at Ukraine’s border indicates a readiness to engage. Furthermore, its new national security strategy has shown that maintaining relations with the U.S. and other unfriendly states is no longer a priority.

In essence, the U.S., NATO, and Russia have created a security dilemma; a situation where a state’s defensive attempts to increase its own security prompts other states to take countermeasures that can lead to conflict and decreased stability. By recently expanding its military exercises in response to Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, and subsequently prompting Russia to respond in kind, the U.S. and NATO may be inadvertently creating the very problem they are seeking to deter.

One catalyst of a security dilemma is misinterpretation and uncertainty of others’ intentions and whether they are purely defensive. In the past, confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) were put into place to ensure that misunderstandings did not lead to pre-emptive strikes. The measures required a certain level of transparency and communication from participating states of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (now the OSCE), including providing notification of planned exercises and allowing observation by other members. Moving forward, the U.S. and other OSCE members should continue to consistently follow CSBM mandates to promote predictability and openness and encourage other states to do the same. There is no guarantee that Russia will similarly adhere to CSBMs; certainly, it has a history of exploiting the measures by understating the sizes of its forces and thus circumventing the required presence of international observers. However, a failure by Western powers to stay fully committed to these risk reducing measures may indicate that such behavior is acceptable.

It is important to note that both Russia and the U.S. are well within their right to run military exercises in international waters. By no means should Russian or Western actions dictate either side’s ability to build cohesiveness or reconsider commitments to allies. Nevertheless, in walking the fine line between deterrence and provocation, we need to remember the consequences of tipping one way too far and the value of ensuring the message we are sending to allies leaves no room for misinterpretation.