The Russian Military dominates the Arctic these days and now they have Europe very concerned with their latest moves
TALLINN/VILNIUS (Reuters) – From planes, radar screens and ships in the Baltics, NATO officials say they are watching Russia’s biggest war games since 2013 with “calm and confidence”, but many are unnerved about what they see as Moscow testing its ability to wage war against the West.
NATO believes the exercises, officially starting on Thursday in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, are already underway. It says they are larger than Moscow has publicized, numbering some 100,000 troops, and involve firing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Codenamed Zapad or “West”, NATO officials say the drills will simulate a conflict with the U.S.-led alliance intended to show Russia’s ability to mass large numbers of troops at very short notice in the event of a conflict.
“NATO remains calm and vigilant,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week during a visit to an Estonian army base where British troops have been stationed since March.
But Lithuania’s Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis was less sanguine, voicing widely-felt fears that the drills risk triggering an accidental conflict or could allow Moscow to leave troops in neighboring Belarus.
“We can’t be totally calm. There is a large foreign army massed next to Lithuanian territory,” he told Reuters.
Some Western officials including the head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Gen. Ben Hodges, have raised concerns that Russia might use the drills as a “Trojan horse” to make incursions into Poland and Russian-speaking regions in the Baltics.
The Kremlin firmly rejects any such plans. Russia says some 13,000 troops from Russia and Belarus will be involved in the Sept. 14-20 drills, below an international threshold that requires large numbers of outside observers.
NATO will send three experts to so-called ‘visitor days’ during the exercises, but a NATO official said these were no substitute for meeting internationally-agreed norms at such exercises that include talking to soldiers and briefings.
Moscow says it is the West that threatens stability in eastern Europe because the U.S.-led NATO alliance has put a 4,000-strong multinational force in the Baltics and Poland.
Wrong-footed by Moscow in the recent past, with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its intervention in Syria’s war in 2015, NATO is distrustful of the Kremlin’s public message.
In Crimea, Moscow proved a master of “hybrid warfare”, with its mix of cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and use of Russian and local forces without insignia.
One senior European security official said Zapad would merge manoeuvres across Russia’s four western military districts in a “complex, multi-dimensional aggressive, anti-NATO exercise”.
“It is all smoke and mirrors,” the official said, adding that the Soviet-era Zapad exercises that were revived in 1999 had included simulated nuclear strikes on Europe.
NATO officials say they have been watching Russia’s preparations for months, including the use of hundreds of rail cars to carry tanks and other heavy equipment into Belarus.
As a precaution, the U.S. Army has moved 600 paratroopers to the Baltics during Zapad and has taken over guardianship of the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which lack capable air forces and air defense systems.
NATO‘S NEXT MOVE?
Russia’s military show of force raises some uncomfortable questions for the alliance because NATO cannot yet mass large numbers of troops quickly, despite the United States’ military might, NATO officials and diplomats said.
NATO, a 29-nation defense pact created in 1949 to deter the Soviet threat, has already begun its biggest modernization since the Cold War, sending four battalions to the Baltics and Poland, setting up an agile, high-readiness spearhead force, and developing its cyberspace defenses.
But NATO has deliberately taken a slowly-slowly approach to its military build-up to avoid being sucked into a new arms race, even as Russia has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in Kaliningrad, the Black Sea and Syria.
“The last thing we want is a military escalation with Russia,” said one senior NATO official involved in military planning, referring to Zapad.
In the event of any potential Russian incursion into the Baltics or Poland, NATO’s new multinational forces would quickly need large reinforcements. But a 40,000-strong force agreed in 2015 is still being developed, officials say.
Lithuania’s Karoblis said he hoped to see progress by the next summit of NATO leaders in July 2018.
Baltic politicians want more discretion given to NATO to fight any aggressor in the event of an attack, without waiting for the go-ahead from allied governments.
During Zapad, NATO is taking a low-key approach by running few exercises, including an annual sniper exercise in Lithuania. Only non-NATO member Sweden is holding a large-scale drill.
NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Everard told Reuters there was no need to mirror Zapad. “It’s not a competition,” he said during a visit to NATO forces in Latvia.
Fearing Russia, Sweden holds biggest war games in 20 years
GOTHENBURG, Sweden (Reuters) – Neutral Sweden has launched its biggest war games in two decades with support from NATO countries, drilling 19,000 troops after years of spending cuts that have left the country fearful of Russia’s growing military strength.
On the eve of Russia’s biggest maneuvers, since 2013, which NATO says will be greater than the 13,000 troops Moscow says are involved, Sweden will simulate an attack from the east on the Baltic island of Gotland, near the Swedish mainland.
“The security situation has taken a turn for the worse,” Micael Byden, the commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, said during a presentation of the three-week-long exercise.
Sweden, like the Baltics, Poland and much of the West, has been deeply troubled by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“Russia is the country that affects security in Europe right now with its actions – the annexation of the Crimea and continued battles in eastern Ukraine – so it is clear that we are watching very closely what Russia is doing,” Byden said.
Around 1,500 troops from the United States, France, Norway and other NATO allies are taking part in the exercise dubbed Aurora.
Non-NATO member Sweden has decided to beef up its military after having let spending drop from over 2 percent of economic output in the early 1990s to around 1 percent, and is re-introducing conscription.
Sweden’s soldiers attend the Aurora 17 military exercise in Gothenburg, Sweden September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Johan Ahlander
The armed forces, which at one point could mobilize more than 600,000, stand at just 20,000, with 22,000 more Home Guard volunteers.
NATO generals say the Aurora exercise is not a response to Russian exercises that start on Thursday.
French soldiers work in weapon systems during the joint NATO exercise ‘Aurora 17’ at Save airfield in Goteborg, Sweden September 13, 2017. Henrik Brunnsgard/TT News Agency/via REUTERS
But Byden, speaking as U.S. and French forces displayed mobile surface-to-air missile systems to be deployed during the exercise, stressed the importance of NATO for Sweden.
“We are a sovereign country that takes care of and is responsible for our safety. We do this together with others, ready to both support and receive help,” he said.
The United States shipped vehicles by sea from Germany, while France brought others by train. They are to be moved via a classified route to Sweden’s east coast for the exercise where U.S. attack helicopters will play the enemy during Aurora.
The government is determined to stick to the country’s formal neutrality. Sweden has not fought a war since it clashed with Norway in 1814.
But like its non-NATO neighbor Finland, Sweden has been drawing closer to NATO, allowing closer cooperation with alliance troops, with a view to working together in the event of an armed conflict.