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If Russia gets its war games wrong, Europe could be in big trouble

Careful now. EPA/Igor Rudenko

Tensions are running high in a region with a history of paranoia and mistrust. The rhetoric being used raises the concern of a military escalation. And now there are massive war games that will only add to the combustible situation. No, this isn’t the Korean peninsula: it’s the northeastern corner of Europe.

Flying deep under the radar amid the ongoing crisis in Asia, the Russian “war games” known as Zapad 2017 have been largely overlooked. Conducted across Belarus, which borders several EU states, the exercises have by some estimates involved more than 100,000 troops, raising hackles among NATO military planners and Eastern European governments who fear that military exercises could be cover for an offensive deployment of Russian power.

This worry about a Russian threat has only risen in recent years. Russia used war games as cover for the beginning of the war with Georgia in 2008, and did so again during its annexation of Crimea, from Ukraine, in 2014. During these engagements, it was the subversive nature of Russia’s non-traditional military actions that unnerved many EU states. The use of irregular military forces and special forces operating without insignia to infiltrate and annex parts of Ukraine has led both the Baltic states and Poland to bolster their own military activities.

In response, NATO has stationed troops and military hardware in the Baltic States as a message to Russia. The abiding principle of NATO is that an attack on one is an attack on all – and recent history seems to support the need for this deterrent.

Fly the friendly skies. EPA/Sergei Grits

The hysteria surrounding the potential sudden appearance of so-called “little green men” on the borders of the EU was compounded by Russia’s refusal to allow NATO military personnel to observe Zapad in action. Claiming that Zapad 2017 involves fewer than 13,000 soldiers, Russia argues it is not in breach of the OSCE’s Vienna convention, which stipulates military observers must be present in the event of war games conducted on a larger scale.

But these concerns about an intentional Russian military attack are misguided. When it comes to NATO member states, Vladimir Putin’s attempts to reestablish the Soviet sphere of influence will not be conducted by force. Putin is a realist; he understands that even after a decade of modernisation, the Russian military is clearly outgunned by NATO.

No, the real risk of conflict comes from secrecy and miscalculation by those on the other side. Again, history can provide us with a warning that many in eastern EU and NATO member states seem to have forgotten.

To the edge and back

In 1983, at the height of the Cold War, the world came terrifyingly close to nuclear conflict when NATO members engaged in their own large-scale war games. Codenamed Able Archer, the exercise was designed to simulate a response to a Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe.

In the build-up to Able Archer, the US and its NATO allies had been probing the Soviet Union’s airspace and testing their military’s response. Combined with the imminent arrival of the American Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, this had left Soviet leaders increasingly paranoid about NATO’s intentions.

When Able Archer began, the sheer size and scale of the operation led Soviet leaders to believe it was a ruse designed to cover a preemptive strike by NATO against the Soviet Union. In response, Soviet leaders prepared to strike first. Barring the Cuban Missile Crisis, this incident is seen by many as the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

Today, Russia has been probing NATO members’ airspace and possibly making submarine incursions into EU countries’ territorial waters. Combined with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the scale of Zapad 2017, this has brought eastern NATO members to a level of paranoia not seen since Cold War days.

The real risk is not a Russian attack, but a misunderstanding of Russian intentions. The war games have already shown a risk of human error, with the Russians accidentally firing live rounds on their own military observers. A misdirected armoured column or accidental missile launch could be misinterpreted by tense military forces in Poland, Lithuania or Latvia as the start of an attack, resulting in a military response by a NATO member. That would put Europe in a whole new ball game.

Paranoia, secrecy and fear are all catalysts for crisis. But Vladimir Putin’s real intentions are clear enough. Just like the actions of NATO and Able Archer in 1983, the Zapad war games were not designed to provoke a conflict, they were designed to send a message: the Russian bear is back, and the West should not forget that it has claws.

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