Oct 29th 2009 | RIGA AND TALLINN
From The Economist print edition
Jitters in eastern Europe over Russia’s military manoeuvres
SCAREMONGERING is where defence-planning and politics overlap. Big military exercises in western Russia and Belarus, which finished earlier this month, were based on the following improbable scenario: ethnic Poles in western Belarus rise up and “terrorists” from Lithuania attack the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. More than 10,000 troops from Russia and Belarus countered them, reinforcing Kaliningrad from the sea and sending special forces behind the enemy lines. Three NATO–like brigades, one visiting, one Estonian and one Latvian, then invaded western Russia, where they were successfully rebuffed by the elite Pskov-based 76th air assault division, reinforced by a motorised rifle brigade.
Military exercises need a notional enemy and, from Russia’s point of view, NATO is the obvious choice. Because the alliance has expanded to Russia’s borders, taking in a dozen ex-communist members over strenuous protests from the Kremlin, it is all the more desirable to send a strong signal. What is more, Western countries have been urging (and helping) Russia’s military forces to become more professional. That requires practice drills.
The main aim of the Russian exercises may indeed have been to measure progress on military reform, particularly the creation of more Western-style autonomous brigades. And, plainly, Russia is neither willing nor able to fight a real war with NATO. Yet the war-games look alarming to neighbours. They recall that the war in Georgia in August 2008 followed many years of exercises, and they point out that NATO has no formal contingency plans to defend its vulnerable Baltic members. Nor has the alliance held land drills on the territory of any of its new members. Indeed, until two years ago NATO’s threat assessments explicitly discounted the idea of conflict with Russia.
Russia faces many security problems within its borders, and its armed forces are still rusty. It is hard to see why preparing for an implausible armed attack from the West should be a priority; these days America and its allies have little time to rehearse big-war manoeuvres because their soldiers are too busy fighting, or training to fight, insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, the idea of Lithuanian-based “terrorists” invading Russia is risible.
Western military analysts have noted Russia’s use of destroyers and landing craft from the Black Sea and Northern Fleets to back up its feeble Baltic-based naval forces. They also noted the deployment of Russia’s most advanced S-400 air defence system in Belarus and a parallel drill conducted by the Strategic Rocket Forces, the guardians of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal. “The scope of the exercises, the weaponry used, the troops involved and the scenarios rehearsed all indicate unequivocally that Russia is actually rehearsing a full-scale conventional strategic military operation against a conventional opponent,” says a report by Kaarel Kaas, an analyst at an Estonian security think-tank, the International Centre for Defence Studies.
Dividing the exercise into a northern war-game (called Ladoga) and a southern one (Zapad-09) brought each below the 13,000-troop threshold at which Russia is obliged to invite outside observers. Some neighbouring countries were not able to monitor the manoeuvres (Lithuania, with a handful of observers in Belarus, was an exception). That does not build confidence.
From what outsiders can gather, the performance of Russian forces was patchy. A joint Belarusian-Russian headquarters worked poorly. Drones—a big feature of Western armies—seem to have been used mainly for show. Moving large numbers of troops and equipment around, a weakness during Russia’s war in Georgia, took too long.
Polish, Baltic and other officials will meet in Warsaw shortly to discuss the significance of the exercises. NATO will assess them next month. America certainly took careful notes: the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, visited Estonia. NATO warplanes mounted a modest air exercise. A planned exercise in the Baltic states next year is likely to be beefed up, perhaps with the involvement of part of NATO’s new mobile Response Force.
Russia’s armed forces may be ramshackle, but many European members of NATO are in poor shape too. The alliance’s ability to defend the Baltic states depends almost wholly on American involvement. NATO hawks complain that members such as Germany and Italy are blocking attempts to draw up formal contingency plans for all its members—something that President Barack Obama has demanded. The doves retort that NATO’s Article 5, which says that an attack on one member is an attack on the whole alliance, is deterrent enough; new members who question its worth are hurting their own cause.
Yet easterners are raising their voices in talks about NATO’s new “strategic concept”, a document to define its purpose that will be adopted next year. With NATO focused mostly on the fighting in Afghanistan, they want a clear statement that old-fashioned collective defence of NATO territory is still a priority. Only that, they say, will convince their voters that, with Russia flexing its muscles nearby, sending troops to Afghanistan is worth it.