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ELN Policy Brief shows Russia and NATO Exercising for a Possible Confrontation 


A new European Leadership Network (ELN) policy brief and two interactive maps analyse how, through the emerging pattern of military exercises in Europe, Russia is actively preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.

The policy brief, Preparing for the Worst: Are Russian and NATO Military Exercises Making War in Europe More Likely?, plus two associated interactive maps, analyse two recent large scale exercises by Russia and NATO: a Russian ‘snap exercise’ conducted in March 2015 with 80,000 military personnel; and NATO’s ‘Allied Shield’ exercise conducted in June 2015 with 15,000 personnel from 19 Members states and three partner states.

Key Findings:

  • Each side is clearly training with the other side’s capabilities and most likely war plans in mind. Whilst spokespeople may maintain that these operations are targeted against only hypothetical opponents, the nature and scale of the operations indicate otherwise.
  • We do not suggest that the leadership of either side has made a decision to go to war or that a military conflict between the two is inevitable, but that the changed profile of exercises is a fact and it does play a role in sustaining the current climate of tensions in Europe.
  • The focus of the exercises is on what each side sees as its most exposed areas, with NATO concentrating on the Baltic States and Poland whilst Russia is focusing primarily on the Arctic and High North, Kaliningrad, occupied Crimea, and its border areas with NATO members Estonia and Latvia.
  • Attempts to monitor the exercises have resulted in some close military encounters between the NATO and Russian militaries. For example, Russian Su-30 and Su-24 bombers approached close to NATO warships exercising in the Black Sea in March 2015. Also, a number of NATO interceptions of Russian aircraft and ships moving between the Kaliningrad exclave and mainland Russia have been a consequence of ongoing Russian exercises.
  • The training on each side has a number of similar characteristics. These include:

o The rapid mobilisation and redeployment of forces over long distances whilst maintaining combat effectiveness in the areas of redeployment.

o Ground forces supported by aerial and naval forces conducting joint operations designed to gain air and sea superiority.

  • The exercises contain a mixture of high-intensity combined-arms training focusing on a conventional state-on-state engagement, the conduct and repelling of amphibious assaults, and low-level engagements with irregular forces or saboteurs.
  • However, there is a notable difference in scale between the two exercises, and between NATO and Russian exercise patterns more broadly. While the particular Russian exercise we analyse relied heavily on elite formations such as airborne troops, the ability of the Russian armed forces to mobilize thousands of conscripts inevitably results in exercises of a size that the smaller, predominantly professional armed forces of NATO countries simply cannot match.

Context: The exercises are taking place against a wider and worrying background. Over the last 18 months, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the relationship between Russia and the West has deteriorated considerably. One aspect of this confrontation has been increased close military encounters between the forces of Russia and NATO and its partners, as previously reported by the European Leadership Network.

Recommendations: To address this escalating situation the report makes four recommendations:

  • First, it is vitally important to increase NATO – Russia communication with regards to the schedule of exercises. The recent decision by NATO’s Secretary General to pass to Russia a list of major NATO exercises planned for the rest of 2015 is a welcome step in right direction.
  • Second, both sides should utilize OSCE channels as much as possible, along with the existing catalogue of Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs) including, inter alia, in the Vienna Document to increase military predictability.
  • Third, politicians on both sides should re-examine the benefits and dangers of intensified exercising in the border areas. If Russia or NATO decides at some point that they want to reduce tensions, showing restraint in terms of size or scenarios used in exercises might be a good place to start.
  • Finally, conceptual work on a new treaty introducing reciprocal territorial limitations on deployment of specific categories of weapons, backed by robust inspections, should commence as soon as possible.

This Policy Brief was prepared by ELN research staff, and does not represent the position of any of the ELN Members.


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