What happens if the decades-long standoff between Russia and NATO military forces GOES from a pseudo Cold War to a hot one? We can gauge that right now as both sides end a summer of major exercises military analysts warn could spark some unexpected outcomes.
Ian Kearns, director of the London-based European Leadership Network (ELN), told the Associated Press that the war games “are contributing to a climate of mistrust” that have “on occasion become the focal point for some quite close encounters between the NATO and Russian militaries.”
Kearns is one of the co-authors of a new ELN study which dissects two military exercises held this year by Russia and NATO. It found signs that “Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.”
The exercises, according to the ELN, “can feed uncertainty” and heighten the risk of “dangerous military encounters.” The study outlines NATO plans for approximately 270 exercises this year, while Russia has announced 4,000 drills at all levels.
The Russian exercise in March involved 80,000 personnel, while NATO’s Allied Shield in June mobilized 15,000 people from 19 NATO countries and three partner states.
The ELN study said the exercises showed what each side views as its most vulnerable points: For NATO, it’s Poland and the Baltic states. Russian concerns are more numerous and include the Arctic, Crimea and border areas with NATO members Estonia and Latvia.
The worries for NATO are predicated on the reality that Russia was able to partition the Crimea just through the threat of military action while Moscow managed to infiltrate much of eastern Ukraine by using traditional military forces disguised as rebels.
Other events of concern logged by ELN in Europe include:
- two submarine hunts off the western Scottish coast that coincided with the departure of nuclear-armed British submarines from their base at Faslane (these incidents also highlight the lack of British maritime surveillance assets);
- scrambles of NATO fighters to intercept Russian bombers and fighters;
- disruption of Irish civilian air traffic by Russian strategic bombers (a situation exacerbated by the Irish lack of jet fighters);
- unconfirmed reports, later denied by Moscow, that in one case a Russian strategic bomber flying over the Atlantic was carrying aboard a nuclear warhead – which would be a significant departure from the established patterns of Long Range Aviation flights.
For its part, NATO has released figures highlighting the number and nature of past encounters between its military assets and Russia’s. Last year, Allied aircraft intercepted Russian planes over 400 times – that’s about four times as many as in 2013. Over 150 of these intercepts were conducted by NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission.
While both sides continue to monitor each other, the only certainty is that it may be human error rather than geo-political gamble that starts a war in Europe.
As long as NATO and Russia continue to exercise with a single adversary in mind – each other – the outcome of that mistake is not hard to imagine.