In October 2018, NATO commenced what’s known as Trident Juncture 18, its largest exercise since the Cold War. Russia responded with missile testing amid accusations it had jammed the GPS of NATO forces in northern Finland.
Attempting direct engagement with exercising forces is a dangerous provocation, and the mere suggestion that it occurred reveals the potential dangers of such “war games.”
Despite the risk that military exercises can heighten tensions, they are critical to enhancing NATO’s unity and military capability. But if exercises aren’t aimed at causing conflict, it’s essential that NATO is transparent and has open channels of communication with Russia, regardless of Russian aggravation.
The potential for exercises to exacerbate tensions was recognized during the Cold War, and from the mid-1970s, a regime of “Confidence and Security Building Measures” (CSBMs) was put in place. The intention was to prevent military exercises from leading to conflict.
The CSBMs required members of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (later the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) to provide prior notification of an exercise, and facilitate observation by other members if exercises were bigger than expected.
Over the long term, it was hoped that repeated communication through CSBMs would result in the development of trust between antagonists. More immediately, the measures were intended to ensure that an exercise did not result in a pre-emptive attack from an external party who mistook it for a genuine assault.
Military exercises on the rise
Although the frequency and scope of exercises dropped markedly when the Cold War ended, they are rising again, and there is a pressing need to ensure that participants reaffirm their commitment to the spirit of the CSBMs if they want to avoid an escalation to conflict.
Despite NATO’s seemingly strong adherence to the CSBM regime, Russia’s recent engagement has been questioned. Notably, Russia has been accused of understating the size of its Zapad 17 exercise and, by doing so, avoiding full formal observation.
But this must not lead to NATO abdicating its adherence to a policy of openness and transparency. Instead, NATO must remain steadfast in its commitment to the agreed CSBMs. Otherwise, it risks a rapid acceleration in the breakdown of relations with Russia.
Russia’s alleged exploitation of the loopholes within the CSBMs is problematic not because it represents an overt security threat, but because it raises questions about their political intentions.
But if NATO were to similarly attempt to stretch the spirit of the CSBMs, it would signal that such behaviour is acceptable.
Consequently, NATO must keep up its pressure on Russia by remaining consistent in its approach to the existing agreements. If Russia also demonstrates transparency, the potential for escalation is reduced. If it does not, it serves as a reminder of NATO’s military significance.
Using military exercises as a deterrent
This is not to suggest that NATO should not use exercises as a deterrent, and a senior military commander within NATO acknowledged that deterrence was one objective of NATO’s 2015 Trident Juncture 15 exercise.
Engaging in a multilateral exercise is a demonstration of resolve and commitment to continued military engagement. As such, NATO’s exercises can be a powerful signal that the alliance is willing and able to respond to an attack against it.
For such a demonstration to be effective, however, the exercise must be visible. Inviting observation, therefore, can be beneficial on multiple levels.
When provided with appropriate access, observers are given a demonstration of the capability of the exercising force without being able to gather enough information to gain a tactical advantage if conflict occurs.
Secrecy is dangerous
It’s when exercises occur under a veil of secrecy, and therefore suggest that there’s an attempt to hide something, that the possibility of conflict is most likely to rise.
Russia’s missile tests close to NATO forces in response to the Trident Juncture 18 exercise demonstrated Russian displeasure, but it was nothing more than contained posturing. And such posturing is distinctly preferable to a pre-emptive strike.
The exercises in which NATO and Russian forces are currently engaging, however, are more than simple training. The way in which they are designed and conducted are signals of intent and capability.
However, if conflict is to be avoided, they must not be used as provocation for provocation’s sake.
The line between deterrence and provocation is narrow, and NATO must remain committed to openness and transparency, while maintaining pressure on Russia to follow suit.