Russia and Nato have been conducting increasingly large-scale military exercises to prepare for a possible conflict with each other, but the war games themselves are making a clash more likely, a new report warns.
The report by the European Leadership Network (ELN) thinktank calls on both sides to communicate more and to improve the transparency of their military activities. It also encourages them to wind down the scale of their war games while starting work on a new treaty that would limit the sort of weaponry allowed along their borders.
“Each exercise is seen as provocative by the other side and feeding a dynamic of distrust and unpredictability,” Ian Kearns, ELN’s director, said. “Everyone is focusing on the deterrent value of big exercises, but there is a downside and that is the risk factor. Politicians have to show political judgment and restraint about when is the right time to scale down what could be a spiralling sequence of exercises.”
The ELN report is titled Preparing for the worst: are Russian and N ato military exercises making war in Europe more likely? It analyses two recent mass war games: a Russian ‘snap exercise’ in March involving 80,000 military personal from bases all across the country, and Nato’s Allied Shield set of war games conducted on air, land and sea in June, and drawing in 15,000 personnel from 22 countries.
“Both exercises show that each side is training with the other side’s capabilities and most likely war plans in mind,” the report said. “Whilst spokespeople may maintain that these operations are targeted against hypothetical opponents, the nature and scale of them indicate otherwise: Russia is preparing for a conflict with NAato, and Nato is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.”
The Russian exercise in March started in the far north and spread across the federation in order to mimic a rapidly escalating conflict. Troops were deployed to reinforce vulnerable outlying regions like the Kola peninsula, islands in the Arctic, the Kaliningrad enclave, Crimea and the north Pacific island of Sakhalin. As well as the huge number of elite forces and conscripts, the exercise involved 12,000 pieces of heavy equipment, 65 warships, 15 submarines and 220 aircraft.
Nato’s exercises in June comprised a naval action in the Baltic with a focus on amphibious operations in Sweden and Poland; a conventional-force exercise focused on Poland and the Baltic states that included airborne and tank clashes; and the first deployment of a joint task force set up specifically to address fears among Baltic states of Russian infiltration and the use of irregular fighters, as witnessed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Each exercise led to close military encounters as each side approached the other’s war games to assess their capability and hardware. The ELN report said that the Russian practice of not giving notice of its exercises added to the risk of unintended clashes and contributed to the general level of tension.
“It is vitally important to increase Nato-Russia communication with regards to the schedule of exercises,” the ELN report recommended, adding that the two sides should use the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to pass on details of war exercises in advance. The report also called on each side to weigh the costs and benefits of intensive exercises in border areas, and to show restraint in their scale.
Lastly, the thinktank – which brings together former defence ministers and senior ex-officials from Europe and Russia – appealed for work to begin on “a new treaty introducing reciprocal territorial limitations on deployment of specific categories of weapons, backed by robust inspections”.