Jonathan Eyal — Straits Times Nov 1, 2018
The US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) military alliance has vowed to continue with its biggest manoeuvres in decades off the coast of Norway despite the fact that Russia announced that, as of Thursday (Nov 1), it will hold missile firing tests from its ships in precisely the same region of northern Europe.
“We will conduct our exercise as planned, and I don’t expect that that will cause any serious problems,” Nato’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told media reporters observing the troop movements.
But while senior commanders on both sides are expected to ensure that their forces maintain a safe distance, Russia’s decision to hold its own firing tests near a Nato exercise whose timing and location have been known for months in advance is the clearest indication yet that tensions between Russia and the West are increasing, and that neither side has any intention to back down.
Scheduled to last until the middle of next week, Trident Juncture 18, as the military exercise is known, is one of Nato’s biggest single manoeuvres since the end of the Cold War, engaging 50,000 soldiers from 31 nations, as well as 250 fighter jets, 65 ships and a mammoth presence of around 10,000 various vehicles.
Admiral James Foggo of the United States Navy, who is the overall commander of Trident Juncture, denies that the exercise is explicitly aimed at threatening Russia; its objective, he says, is merely “to ensure that Nato forces are trained, able to operate together and ready to respond to any threat from any direction”.
Still, Nato officials make no secret of the fact that such a major exercise comes as a direct consequence of the rapidly-deteriorating relationship with Russia and the growing perception among many Nato member-states that further confrontations with Russia may be in the offing.
In purely numerical terms, Nato has no rivals. It is the largest military alliance ever known to mankind; around 2.6 million uniformed men and women are theoretically under Nato’s command, and the alliance includes the arsenals of no less than three out of the world’s five acknowledged major nuclear powers.
Compared to that, Russia is no match; it has plenty of nuclear weapons of its own but only 1.3 million military personnel, and an economy not bigger than that of a single middle-sized Nato member-state.
Yet over the past decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged massive resources to boost his country’s military; Russia currently spends about 4.5 per cent of its gross domestic product on its armed forces, more than double the European average and even higher, in GDP terms, than what the US devotes to its armed forces.
More importantly, President Putin has repeatedly shown over the past 10 years that he will not hesitate to use his troops when that is in Russia’s advantage.
The Georgia war in 2008 is one such example; Russian forces are still in control of two enclaves on Georgia’s territory. So is Ukraine, where Russian troops seized Crimea in a swift operation in 2014, allowing Mr Putin to formally annex this southern European peninsula to Russia’s own territory.
Russia has recently given plenty of signs that it wishes to increase its military presence in Europe’s north; a new fighting snowmobile was showcased in a parade in Moscow earlier this year, as was the Tor M2DT, a surface-to-air missile system mounted on a tracked all-terrain vehicle for operations in Europe’s Arctic regions.
Russia has also established a new brigade of Arctic troops.
Nato’s current exercise is designed to message to Moscow the West’s determination to defend its allies in northern Europe, and particularly the small and vulnerable Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which were occupied by the Soviet Union during much of the past century.
The fact that Sweden and Finland, which are not part of Nato, are also taking part in the exercise is another signal to the Russians that Europe’s northern region is increasingly worried about Moscow’s intentions.
But the bigger aim of the Nato alliance is to test its logistical supply lines across Europe; that is why member-states from the southern part of the continent are also taking part.
And the emphasis is on both apparently secondary questions such as whether bridges and roads across the continent can support large military convoys, as well as on the continued validity of the United States’ military commitment; the US is represented at the Trident Juncture exercise by an aircraft carrier group.
President Putin’s decision to stage missile firing tests near the Nato exercise is Russia’s way of signalling that it refuses to be intimidated by this Western show of force.
And the confrontation is set to continue: Russia has just launched its own military exercises together with some of its neighbours in Central Asia, code-named “Indestructible Brotherhood”.