NATO War Games: A Ratcheting Up Of Tensions?

From October 25 to November 7, NATO forces will take part in what its Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg calls, “NATO’s biggest exercise since the end of the Cold War.”  50,000 soldiers from 31 countries, 250 aircraft, 65 naval vessels, and 10,000 military vehicles will take part in the military exercises, taking place throughout Scandinavia.  The war games involve NATO’s 29 member states, plus Sweden and Finland. As the Trump administration expresses skepticism about the purpose of the alliance and criticizes fellow member states’ contributions, and tensions with Russia escalate, these military exercises are expected to be a forceful demonstration of NATO’s solidity in the face of both internal and external challenges.

Secretary-General Stoltenberg, speaking to Military Times, said that the exercises—called Trident Juncture—“will simulate NATO’s collective response to an armed attack against one ally.” Meanwhile, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said prior to the military exercises, “NATO’s military activities near our borders have reached the highest level since the Cold War times…[Trident Juncture] is simulating offensive military action.” German politician Dietmar Bartsch, of the left-wing Die Linke party, has called the exercises as “ludicrous, dangerous, and provocative towards Russia. The threat of war is greater than it has been for a long time. The U.S. president threatens nuclear armament against Russia and China and is canceling nuclear disarmament treaties.”

With Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Russia’s own Vostok military exercises, which took place in September, the state of NATO-Russia relations are at a distressing low. In order to avoid a military or political escalation between the two sides, regular diplomatic exchanges must occur that reflect a commitment to dialogue, transparency, and conflict management.  Representatives from both sides should consider it a matter of national and international security that they accurately gauge the intentions and content of each sides’ military exercises. Miscommunication and misunderstanding between potential belligerents could very well lead to the verbal and physical escalation that both politicians and analysts fear. To defuse this, both NATO and Russia must regularly meet through the NATO-Russia Council, thus reducing the potential for conflict.

Military exercises of both NATO and Russia have been regularly carried out, both during the Cold War and after. So far in 2018 alone, there have been 11 NATO military exercises, with three more planned for November. Besides the massive Vostok exercises in September, Russia is conducting a joint military exercise with Pakistan from October 21 to November 4. The Vostok military exercises themselves were aimed to be a powerful testament of Russian military strength and expression of its resurgence as a major global power. Conducted jointly with the Chinese and Mongolian armed forces, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, 300,000 troops, 36,000 military vehicles, 1,000 aircraft, and 80 naval vessels took part. Described as the largest Russian military exercise since Zapad-81 in September 1981, it is largely seen as a sign of Russia’s increasing pivot to Asia for its military and political alignments. These recent developments, along with diplomatic freeze over Ukraine, reflect an increasingly hostile environment and relationship between the two nuclear-armed sides.

The poor state of relations between Russia and the West does not bode well for European security and for U.S.-Russia relations. Already at odds over a number of issues ranging from Ukraine and Syria, to accusations of Russian interference in Western democratic processes, any further cooling of relations will make Europe less secure and less safe. Though the risk of a conventional war between the two remains a remote scenario, it is imperative that Moscow, Brussels, and Washington maintain open dialogue to de-escalate whatever security hotspots are currently in place and any that may arise. With the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, Trump’s recent decision concerning the INF Treaty, and little sign of a renewal of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), nuclear arms control remains a distant priority. It is hoped that these war games will just be war games and not be a forecast of what is to come.

Spencer A. Wong

Spencer is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying Security Policy Studies.He is interested in European domestic politics and international relations and the political dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region.

About Spencer A. Wong

Spencer is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying Security Policy Studies. He is interested in European domestic politics and international relations and the political dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region.