Tensions between NATO and Russia simmer as both plan to hold military training drills in Northern Europe this summer and into Fall 2017. The concurrent war drills are the first after the Russian annexation of Crimea which severed constructive NATO-Russia working agreements. As both parties prepare for large-scale military exercises, Northern Europe and the Black and Mediterranean Seas will illustrate the strained NATO-Russia relationship.
NATO’s series of battle drills, Saber Guardian 17, are set in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and involve twenty countries around a scenario of a “technologically advanced land force” pushing into NATO territory and “threatening the alliance as a whole.” At the same time, Russia will partner with Belarus to conduct Zapad – “West” – the next series of annual rotational battle drills with as many as 100,000 troops in different, concurrent military exercises. Zapad 2017 will focus on contingency plans for a full-scale conflict with NATO and “the West.”
Current NATO and Russian posturing is preceded by the June 2017 Baltops operations, a massive NATO maritime drill in the Baltic Sea. This year’s drills exercised preparations for NATO’s Forward Presence, the U.S.–led NATO military buildup against perceived Russian military and political aggression. The drills demonstrated America’s military commitment to its allies on Russia’s border. These allies, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, have expressed concerns following Russian aggression on the Crimea Peninsula.
NATO-frontier states have reason to be concerned because of similar Russian military drills prior to the war in Georgia and annexation of Crimea. The Russian invasion of Georgia was launched shortly after nearby military drills in August 2008. The effective capture of Crimea was initiated after the deployment of ground forces and aircraft in February and March 2014 following regular military exercises. Other Baltic states are also worried about border issues around Kaliningrad ahead of Russia’s military drills, and NATO recognizes the possibility of Russia adding more permanently deployed troops to its ally Belarus.
Moscow denies instigating any threats against NATO and argues that U.S.-led NATO responses are driving an arms race in the region. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu previously stated that Zapad 2017 exercises would “take into account the situation linked to increased NATO activity along the borders of the Union state.” Alexander Grushko, Russian Ambassador to NATO, accuses the West of fear-mongering by expanding NATO and increasing the U.S. military presence on Russia’s borders and around the world, thus driving the need for Russian military preparation
Looking south, Russia is implementing a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea after recent opportunities to strengthen its forces in the region. Russian bases in Tartus and Latakia exercise increased control over Syrian airspace after increased Russian military support to the embattled regime. The annexation of Crimea bolstered the Russian position further to provide surface and submarine access to warm water ports through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits and the Aegean Sea in the Eastern Mediterranean. Military agreements also strengthened Russian ties with Turkey, the only NATO country located in the region with effective technology for finding submerged submarines.
The United States stated that it would not supplement the Sixth Fleet, the standard American naval presence for the area. However, the U.S. is prepared to send weapons, including patriot missiles, to non-NATO Sweden and other countries. U.S. Army Europe’s Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges states that this move is not “a direct response to Russia’s concurrent Zapad war game,” yet points out that a lack of transparency from Russia is driving regional tension.
“Russia’s growing assertiveness” is a cause for preparation but not a call to drastic action. NATO and the United States must recognize the growing Russian presence in the Mediterranean and Black Seas as part of Russian plans to “disrupt NATO at large.” Russia is moving to contest the long-standing American naval presence and growing NATO membership of former Soviet Europe, yet NATO and its allies must treat exercises as exercises for the time being.
The issue of transparency is “always a question whenever Russia conducts exercises,” says Margus Tsahnka, Estonia Defense Minister, and NATO has already called for increased transparency and communication. Tsahnka and counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania affirm that while they are prepared, it is “not comfortable” expecting 100,000 Russian troops on their borders. Regional military buildup to prepare for the drills is itself “simply destabilizing,” says U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, but NATO and its allies must proceed with a steady hand – and some contingency plans.