The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Russian Federation have both ramped up the frequency of live military training exercises, especially along shared borders in easternmost Europe. Rick Adams provides a balanced view of the exercise programmes in the context of the times.

Two years ago, the last M1A2 Abrams tank left Germany as part of a continued drawdown of conventional U.S. troops in Europe. Détente. Perestroika. “Tear down this wall.” It was supposedly the new era in West-East relations. Partnership between the Bear and the Eagle. Photo opportunity smiles and handshakes on everything from trade to the Space Station. In 1994 Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme, and a NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002 to address security issues of common interest. There was even a report that Russian president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was interested in full membership in NATO.

Then Russia annexed Crimea. And the Abrams tanks have returned.

Indeed, heavy armour is being positioned – in the name of supporting training manoeuvres – at Russia’s gateways in six Eastern European nations once within the Iron Curtain sphere of the former Soviet Union: a brigade’s worth of M1A2s, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, artillery, and other gear going to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Russian Gen. Yuri Yakubov called the American move “the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO since the Cold War,” adding that “Russia will bolster its forces and resources on the western strategic theatre of operations.”

“For a year and half now, a war has been underway in Europe,” said Estonian President Toomas Ilves, who grew up in the United States in New Jersey. “This has brought the realisation that our freedom, our sense of security and safety is not as self-evident as we are used to believing.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has declared: “We will take necessary steps in the U.S. and NATO capabilities, posture, and plans to deter Russia’s maligned and destabilizing influence, coercion, and aggression, including its efforts to undermine strategic stability and challenge the military balance in Europe.”

“We are now talking to each other through military signalling and by taking military actions,” said Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The chances of an accident that could escalate are greater than at any time since the 1960s.”

Alexei Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences and head of the non-proliferation project at the Moscow Carnegie Center, echoed: “When one side conducts exercises, another side is monitoring those exercises or having its own exercise – when the bombers are flying, the interceptor fighters are sent into the air. This is prone with technical accidents which in the present situation may have very dire political and strategic consequences."

NATO Exercises Triple

“In 2014, the intensity of NATO’s operational and combat training activities has grown by 80 percent,” accused Lt. Gen. Andrey Kartapolov, head of Russia’s Main Operation Directorate of General Staff. “During this period, NATO created a grouping of its member states’ forces in the Baltic States consisting of over 10,000 troops, about 1,500 armoured vehicles, 80 planes and helicopters and 50 warships.”

Actually, the number of training exercises has tripled in the past two years, according to Gen. Jean-Paul Paloméros, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. This year, NATO member nations will contribute to more than 300 exercises.

NOBLE JUMP, for example, featured troops from the recently formed Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), also known as the 'Spearhead Force.' The quick-reaction group, created by NATO leaders at the 2014 Wales Summit last September, is intended to respond to challenges on the Alliance’s eastern and southern borders within 48 hours. The VJTF was originally envisioned as about 4-5,000 land troops with supporting maritime, special operations, and air units, operational by 2016. Yet in June, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the response force could grow to as many as 40,000 soldiers.

During NOBLE JUMP in April, more than 1,500 personnel from Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Norway, and Slovenia tested their response times to NATO orders. Troops mustered at airfields and railway stations as if to depart to the front lines. "Moving military units at short notice is a highly complex process that requires careful planning and constant refinement and practice to maintain capability,” said Col. Mariusz Lewicki, the head military planner for the VJTF at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe).

In June, units assigned to the VJTF were part of 2,100 personnel from nine nations deployed to the Zagan Military Training Area in western Poland. "This exercise is just part of a strong initiative which began two years ago," said Gen. Paloméros. "Today is the mark of the determination of NATO, of the allies, to regain on readiness, to reemphasize credibility, and on the full spectrum of its missions, including high-intensity operations."

In October/November, the Spearhead Force will participate in TRIDENT JUNCTURE in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, comprising more than 30,000 military personnel from over 30 NATO member and partner nations.

A naval exercise known as BALTOPS, held annually since 1971, played out this year in northern Poland not far from Russia’s Kaliningrad territory. Nearly 50 ships and aircraft plus 5,600 troops from 17 countries participated in the largest BALTOPS exercise ever. Part of the exercise included a mock amphibious attack commanded by Britain’s HMS Ocean and the American USS San Antonio. Waves of assault boats and U.S. Navy hovercraft brought hundreds of British, American, Finnish, and Swedish marines to shore, supported by U.S. and Swedish fighter jets and attack helicopters.

For PUMA 2015 in June, a French Leclerc armoured battle group deployed to the Drawsko Pomorskie camp in northwestern Poland where it carried out advanced battle drills and live-fire scenarios involving fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, battle tanks, and artillery with Polish and U.S. counterparts.

In May, up to 13,000 soldiers from the Estonian army, including several thousand conscripted civilian reservists, participated in the “Siil” (hedgehog) wargames, the largest training in Estonia’s history, together with troops from the U.S., U.K., Germany, and other NATO countries – all within a mere 38 kilometres from the Russian border.

More than 1,100 troops took part in Operation SUMMER SHIELD XII – a combined land, air, and naval exercise with participants from Canada, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and the U.S. – at the Ādaži Training Area, Latvia.

A joint exercise called NOBLE PARTNER transported 14 Bradley tanks and 300 American soldiers across the Black Sea from Romania to Georgia – right past Russia’s naval base at Sébastopol in Crimea. U.S. Army Maj. Vincent Mucker boasted the exercise showed “we can use the Black Sea as a transit corridor.” He claimed the exercise was planned before Russia's March 2014 annexation of Crimea. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili stated, "This training is not directed at anyone or any direct threat." The Georgia-NATO partnership dates to 1992, shortly after Georgia gained independence from the former Soviet Union, and was reinforced by a 2008 war in which Russia supported breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia’s Snap Exercises

The day after Carter revealed the pre-positioning of American armour in Eastern Europe, Putin announced that Russia would add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal this year. In view of the more than 8,000 nukes that NATO and Russia each has, 40 are not many and they’re likely replacements for aging inventory. But timing is everything, eh, whether in rhetoric or action.

"We will be forced to aim our armed forces ... at those territories from where the threat comes," Putin said during a speech at the country's Army 2015 military showcase for defence contractors.

Gen. Kartapolov alleged that the U.S. plans to supply its Eastern European allies with JASSM-ER long-range aviation cruise missiles, which will enable NATO to hit targets 1,300 kilometers inside Russian territory. “Almost the entire European part of Russia will be vulnerable to NATO’s air attack, with the flight time of the missiles reduced by half.” He also claimed that U.S. Global Hawk drones were spotted in Ukrainian airspace, thus increasing “the depth of reconnaissance on the territory of Russia by 250-300 kilometers.”

In the wake of some NATO moves, Putin has shown a penchant to order “snap” exercises – meaning no prior notification is provided to the West – which the Russian Defence Ministry calls “surprise combat readiness inspections.” The surprise exercises sometimes even shadow similar NATO exercises. “It is a message that we're there and ready to take on any and every possible enemy," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence analyst in Moscow.

During snap exercises last December, some 9,000 troops and 55 naval ships took part. The March 16 “inspection” involved 45,000 servicemen, 3,000 vehicles, 40 surface vessels, 15 submarines, 110 aircraft. More ominous, though, Iskander missiles (capable of carrying nuclear warheads) were reported to have been deployed in Kaliningrad, a detached portion of Russia on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Iskanders have 400 kilometer range, placing many European cities within reach.

Kaliningrad is home to Russia's Baltic Sea Fleet, as well as the Chernyakhovsk and Donskoye air bases. An anonymous NATO official said that Moscow is stationing "thousands of troops, including mechanised and naval infantry brigades, military aircraft, modern long-range air defence units and hundreds of armoured vehicles in the territory."

Lithuanian leaders have voiced concern that Russia may stage a ruse scenario in order to escalate tensions. "We are afraid of any kind of possible provocations on transit routes … railways or gas pipeline or electricity transit routes … which can be organised in order to have some type of pretext from Moscow's side to begin some aggressive actions," explained Andrius Kubilius, a former Lithuanian prime minister.

There are also reports of Russian forces airlifted to Arctic bases for naval exercises, including anti-submarine and mine-sweeping operations, activities along the Finnish border, deployment of Tu-22M3 long-range strategic bombers to Crimea, and positionings across the Baltic Fleet, Black Sea Fleet, and in the western and southern military districts. Russia also recently flexed its fleet muscles in the “Sea-Cooperation 2015” joint drills in the Mediterranean with Chinese Navy warships.

Austin, Texas global intelligence firm Stratfor noted that Russian military exercises “have taken on a threatening posture … the areas involved and the forces included seem to have been deliberately chosen to send a warning to NATO … to simulate a full-scale confrontation with NATO through the forward deployment of nuclear-armed submarines, theatre ballistic missiles, and strategic bomber aircraft.”

The NATO Fold

Formed in 1949, NATO was largely a Western European conclave until the fall of the Berlin Wall 40 years later and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. In 1991, the Allies established a council for consultations with Central European, Eastern European, and Central Asian neighbours, many of whom saw a relationship with NATO as fundamental to integration with the then more economically prosperous West. The Partnership for Peace programme, initiated in 1994, allowed non-NATO countries to share information with NATO members. The path to full membership was open. Also in 1994, the Alliance founded the Mediterranean Dialogue with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and later Algeria.

In 1999, three former Russian satellites became full NATO members – Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania joined in 2004, Croatia and Albania in 2009.

However, in 2014, when it appeared that Ukraine, the largest land buffer between Russia and the European allies, might opt into the NATO fold, “little green men” with no insignia on their uniforms took control of Crimea, which subsequently voted to be annexed back into the Russian Federation. Ukraine has also been turned into tumult, becoming the new poster boy for rapid-development simulation terrain databases.

The conflict in Ukraine has led the long-neutral Swedes to consider NATO membership, prompting a warning, as reported in Swedish newspapers, from Russian Ambassador Viktor Tatarintsev of “consequences.”

The NATO exercise programme clearly sends a message of solidarity and of reassurance to those countries that perceive a need for strength in a time of uncertainty. However, uncertainty elevates the need for critical thinking, prudence and discretion amongst leaders across the military and political spectrum. Balance has worked to increase certainty in the past, and one could suggest, could do so in the future.