This month, from June 7-17th over 24 NATO and partner countries will be engaging in one of the largest NATO military exercises ever endeavoured since the end of the Cold War. Running in Poland on Russia’s Baltic doorstep, the exercises are touted as part of NATO’s growing efforts to reassure eastern European and Baltic countries of their security within Europe, after Russia’s belligerent actions in the Ukraine.
Over the 10 day period 31,000 troops accompanied by large numbers of military vehicles, aircraft and ships, will be deployed into Poland for Anakonda-16. The exercises are said to include night-time manoeuvers with helicopter assaults and paratroopers dropping into the region of the Vistula River to build a temporary bridge.
Show of Strength or Preparation for Protection
Clearly designed to demonstrate the strength of the NATO Alliance, the involvement of 14,000 United States soldiers and that of non-NATO members Sweden and Finland make this exercise more than just a chance to train.
The exercise provides NATO and Europe with a chance to integrate militarily prior to the event of a Russian incursion. As stated by the US Army, the goal of Anakonda is to ‘exercise and integrate Polish national command and force structures into an allied, joint, multinational environment.’
This practice at integration also has the benefit of demonstrating NATO’s defence capabilities, something NATO has been serious about showing off in the Baltic and Nordic regions since the start of the year. Out of the 150 military exercises NATO has programed for 2016, the largest 8 of all the joint exercises were scheduled for the countries on Russia’s doorstep.
Increasing Fears across Europe
Exercises like Anakonda-16 are placing further stress on the existing deep fractures in the West’s relationship with Russia. A fact that is not missed by the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway and Finland who are already worrying over their close proximity.
Sweden, in particular, is feeling acutely concerned after NATO released documents detailing Russia’s 2013 military exercise which targeted Sweden with a nuclear attack. Understandably the Swedish government has upped its defence spending with more than US $2.1 billion to be invested in strengthening the military's readiness and warfare capabilities in the 2016-2020 period.
A recent military brief given to the Swedish armed forces personnel attending the Markstrids (Land Combat) conference in Boden stated that Sweden needed to decrease its peacekeeping missions abroad and focus instead on prioritising national defence readiness and capabilities. Swedish Armed Forces’ Maj. Gen. Anders Brännström stated that
"The world situation that we are experiencing, which is clear from strategic decisions made, leads to the conclusion that we could be at war within a few years. For all of us in the military we must, with all the force we can marshal, implement the political decisions,"
This view is echoed by Allan Wildman who is the Chairman of the Swedish Parliament’s Defence Committee who stated,
"The time will come, and it will happen sooner or later, where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin becomes pressured politically. The question is how he will respond to such a situation. Will he become humble and exit Crimea, or will he take other measures. Because of Putin’s track record, Sweden should prepare itself for the latter,"
Sweden’s concerns appear to have some grounding in fact. Over the past 3 years Russia has staged 18 large scale snap military exercises, including the simulated nuclear attack on Sweden, some with over 100,000 military personnel involved.
So in this tit for tat scenario will Russia respond militarily? In a word, no.
According to Andrey Kelin the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s European Cooperation Department,
“American warships do enter the Black Sea now and then. Certainly, this does not meet with [Russia’s] approval and will undoubtedly lead to planning response measures,”
These measure may involve such developments as new bases on the border with Europe which, according to Spanish News Outlet Telesur, is currently underway. Telesur reports that just 50 kilometres away from the Ukrainian border Russia is building a base near the town of Klintsy.
Mr Kelin then went on to signal that there may be another way to resolve the increasing tensions in the form of The NATO-Russia Council. Originally created to forge ties for dialogue and cooperation, the meeting ceased in 2014 thanks to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and have just recently restarted. Mr Kelin signalled that these meeting might hold the key to diffusing the increasing tensions stating,
“We will see how things move forward. But overall, we can absolutely not give up on the most important channel of cooperation and dialogue,”