From the Arctic Circle through Eastern Europe to the Arabian Peninsula, heightened tensions are giving rise to fears that war between major powers might be a miscalculation away. Russia and the West continue to ratchet up the rhetoric while escalating war-prep exercises along their borders. Rick Adams analyzes recent developments in what looks to be an indefinite new Cold War.

In the remote fishing village of Vadsø, Norway, population 6,154, about as far north as you can get without requiring a boat, some residents were convinced in early April that the Russians were invading. A single civil defence siren in an old fire station had gone off at 10 minutes to midnight, and wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate the radar station on the coast of the Varangerfjorden so it couldn’t monitor activities of the Russian Northern Fleet at Murmansk, just across the Barents Sea?

Twenty-five years ago in 1983, merely six years before the toppling of the Berlin Wall and less than a decade before the breakup of the Soviet Union, a NATO training exercise had nearly triggered a nuclear exchange. When 40,000 Western forces wargamed ‘Able Archer’ against a fictional Russian attack in then-Yugoslavia – using encrypted radio communications and practicing real nuclear warhead handling procedures, some Russian commanders were convinced the exercise was a cover for an actual surprise attack. The Russians ordered aircraft in East Germany and Poland to be fitted with nuclear weapons, put nuke-carrying submarines under the Arctic ice on alert, and launched reconnaissance aircraft to monitor US naval forces.

Only later, through defectors, did Western leaders learn that the Kremlin considered the exercise a viable threat. President Ronald Reagan wrote in his memoir, “I think many of us in my administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.”

The incident prompted a scaling back of wargame exercises. The eventual dissolution of the Soviets’ Warsaw Pact empire led to the illusion of democracy in the modern, smaller Russia, considerable economic entanglements with European neighbours and the US, and even some mutual missile destruction.

Until 2014, that is. Since the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cronies have been the targets of ever-increasing sanctions and vitriolic rhetoric, blamed not only for an ongoing proxy war in Ukraine but also cyber-meddling in Western elections, poisoning of former spies, Olympic athlete doping and a host of other malfeasances.

The recent alliance of convenience between Russia, Iran and NATO member Turkey is yet another annoyance to the West. “Everything Russia does at the moment is about behaving in a way that’s disruptive,” Peter Round told MS&T. Retired UK Air Commodore Round is Managing Director of PKR Solutions Ltd, a Fellow and Council Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and Consulting Senior Fellow for European Defence for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “The Russians will play games and do what the West doesn’t want them to do. Disrupt, create doubt, create uncertainty; that’s how they operate.”

“The relationship since the end of the Cold War has followed a negative trajectory despite brief periods where leaders on both sides talked about partnership and cooperation. This seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia and Eurasia analyst at the CNA think tank. “What the United States needs to come to terms with is that our differences are not just a matter of personalities and they aren't just the temperament of the day. They are the result of fundamentally different views of how countries should act in the world, conflicting national interests, and how our respective countries define our national priorities.”

Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov said, “Russia's epic journey toward the West” and “vain attempts to become part of Western civilization” are over, and the country expects an era of “geopolitical loneliness.”

Polish troops during Exercise Iron Sword in Lithuania
Polish troops during Exercise Iron Sword near Vilnius, Lithuania on 2nd December 2016. Image credit: NATO/ SSgt Dan Bardsley.

Scaling Up the Exercises

Since Crimea and the subsequent NATO Wales Summit, the frequency of military exercises and their size have resumed growth. In 2013, the three main NATO training events had 22,000 participants. By 2016, there were eight major exercises with more than 139,000 personnel. Trident Juncture in Norway and Italy in October/November this year will encompass about 35,000 troops from 30 NATO members and “partner” nations, including 70 ships and about 130 aircraft. The annual Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) exercise will feature more than 50 ships and submarines, 50-plus aircraft and 4-5,000 personnel from more than a dozen nations, rehearsing elements of naval and amphibious warfighting such as mine hunting, air defense, anti-submarine warfare, and beach landings in areas around Denmark, Sweden and Poland. Other ominous-named NATO exercises are Saber Strike, Flaming Thunder, Iron Wolf.

NATO Allied Air Command and US Air Forces Europe commander, Gen. Tod Wolters, said, “I focus on our forces’ responsiveness, I focus on their resiliency, and I focus on their lethality. Their job in life is to protect the sovereign skies of our great NATO nations. We do so via a very robust exercise and training scenario calendar.” He indicated training and exercise activities will increase only slightly in 2018, after larger increases between 2016 and 2018.

One area gaining in focus, cybersecurity, has its own set of exercises. NATO’s Cyber Coalition, most recently held in November, included more than 700 participants from 25 allied nations, practicing defence against malware, “challenges involving social media” and attacks on mobile devices. Locked Shields, organized by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, focuses on training for security experts. In February, the Crossed Swords exercise in Latvia sought to improve information sharing between civilian organizations, infrastructure providers and military units from 15 countries.

Cyber security experts from Czech Republic collaborate on cyber defense scenarios during Exercise Cyber Coalition
Cyber security experts from Czech Republic collaborate on implementing realistic cyber defense scenarios during Exercise Cyber Coalition 16 in Tallin, Estonia. Image credit: NATO/NIC Edouard Bocquet.

Russia Responds

In March, in the wake of the post-poisoning sanctions, Latvia closed some of its commercial airspace and Sweden issued warnings to civilian sea and air traffic when Russia commenced a live-fire missile exercise, as well as a 1,000-personnel, 10-ship command staff exercise. The Russians called it “routine training”; Latvia’s Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis labeled it “a demonstration of force.”

Also in March, more than 150 Russian pilots, including the Su-35 interceptor and the new nuclear-capable Su-34 bomber, practiced detecting a conventional enemy and launching missiles near Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe, northeast of Saint Petersburg.

The quadrennial Zapad exercise in Belarus, Kaliningrad and Russia involved 12,000, 23,000, 40,000, 48,000 or 100,000 troops, depending on which analyst you choose to believe, and was hyped by German newspaper Bild as a rehearsal for an invasion of the Baltics, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and bombing of Germany. Riho Terras, commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, alleged that Zapad simulated a “full-scale conventional war against NATO in Europe,” adding “the scale and extent of the entire exercise was far greater than officially stated.” CNA senior research scientist Michael Kofman decried this as “alternative history … being passed around Twitter like so much other received wisdom.” It is “not only untrue, it simply does not make military sense.”

His colleague Jeffrey Edmonds noted, “Military exercises like Zapad and other demonstrations of military power are designed, in part, to provide coercive credibility that any attempt by the United States to undermine core Russian security interests will be met by force and will extract a high cost.”

That cost may soon be getting higher if a raft of new advanced weapons become reality. In an impassioned speech in early March, Putin declared, “No one has listened to us. You will listen to us now,” as he unveiled a nuclear-powered cruise missile; the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (also known as Satan 2) which is expected to be operational by 2021; a nuclear-tipped hypersonic-boost glide vehicle (Avangard) which flies up to 20 times the speed of sound, hitting targets “like a meteorite, like a fireball”; a nuclear-armed undersea drone (“100 times smaller” than traditional submarines, able to travel at “extreme depths” and that “greatly exceed the speed” of submarines, torpedoes and surface ships)”; and a short-range directed-energy weapon for knocking down aerial drone swarms such as those faced in Syria.

Especially worrisome, if they can pull it off, is the cruise missile, which could weave a circuitous high-speed route at low altitude, avoiding warning systems and missile defence interceptors – an apparent response to the US’ planned deployment of Patriot anti-missile systems in Poland by 2022. The US insists the missile defence is aimed at Iran, not Russia.

“I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country’s development: all what you wanted to impede with your policies have already happened,” Putin declared. “You have failed to contain Russia.”

NATO Forces ferrying equipment and personnel across the Rio Tejo, Portugal
NATO Forces ferrying equipment and personnel across the Rio Tejo, Portugal on October 25, 2015 during Trident Juncture 15. Image credit: NATO/Rui Heleno.

Continental Defence, Post-Brexit

“The increased assertiveness of Russia on the EU’s eastern frontier, along with multiple spillovers from political turmoil and conflict in the Arab world and Africa, mean that the security threats to Europe are more significant than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” said Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director General of the UK-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the world’s oldest think tank for defence. Hardly a good time for the military capability of the UK to be departing the EU. “As one of the few EU states able to provide high-level command, control, intelligence and reconnaissance assets, the UK has made a significant addition to the credibility of key missions,” Chalmers noted. The UK is currently also the EU member with the largest defence budget.

Conversely, the UK relies on European collaboration for some of its most important defence capabilities, particularly aircraft and missiles. Key UK-based manufacturing capabilities are owned by EU-headquartered companies: Airbus, Leonardo, Thales.

So what happens after 29 March 2019? “In terms of NATO, nothing much changes post Brexit,” said Round. “In terms of CSDP (the EU Common Security and Defence Policy), it all changes. That place at the table is lost. Though it can offer to contribute and thereby gain influence, the UK will not be able to gain the benefit of European defence money.”

Round’s IISS colleagues Bastian Giegerich and Christian Mölling pointed out, “Brexit will not alter geography. The UK is a power of great importance to European security and defence. Every significant security and defence challenge for EU member-state capitals will also be a concern for London.”

They suggest a “common political project: the forging of a truly European defence-industrial base,” setting conditions for mergers and cooperation among European companies. “An opening may exist already: the Franco-German initiative to develop a future combat aircraft.”

Key ministers across Europe are increasingly advocating for a “European Army”.
Key ministers across Europe are increasingly advocating for a “European Army”. Image credit: NATO/Evert-Jan Daniels.

This may align with the European Intervention Initiative (EII), proposed last fall by French president Emmanuel Macron, enabling European states which are willing to act militarily independently from the EU or NATO – for example, in a scenario in which the United States chooses not to act (nor allow NATO to).

Macron, together with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and key ministers in Germany are increasingly advocating for a “European Army,” especially in view of the US Trump administration’s isolationist leanings. Macron lamented, “Europe as we know it is too weak, too slow and too inefficient,” and proposed an “autonomous capacity for action” through a joint military force, including a shared defence budget, a common defence policy, and a European military training academy.

Round told me, “I think the European army thing is rhetoric. If you’re going to back up foreign policy, you’re going to need strength with which to do it, and the military provide that strength. But the EU can’t do that collectively; those are the rules at the moment.”

“The European arms has interesting theoretical attractions,” he explained. “But if you formed a proper European army, that would require – to use an example – a French president to put a young French soldier in harm’s way at the behest of the European Parliament and a command structure that might not have a single Frenchman in it. I don’t believe any president of France would do that.”

“We may see increased cooperation and increased interoperability, the holy grails of military activity,” Round concluded, “but an integrated European command structure working for the European Parliament without national parliaments in the risk of life of their young people I think is a long way away, if ever.”

Originally published in Issue 2, 2018 of MS&T.