The United States, NATO and Russia: War games two can play

By Dr. Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  July 17, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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As this goes to press, most readers will be surprised to know that in Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, about 30,000 NATO soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, will be conducting major military exercises known as war games. A flotilla of NATO warships will be entering the Black Sea as part of these drills. With names such as Sabre Guardian and Noble Jump, by the end of the year, NATO will have conducted nearly three-dozen such exercises ranging from large-scale troop deployments to Bulgaria and Romania to smaller command post exercises with a handful of personnel.

In September, Russia will begin its series of war games called Zapad 17. Zapad means west, a meaningful designation. These exercises are conducted every four years; are Russian-wide geographically; and can involve upwards of a hundred thousand or more troops. This year, no doubt, Russia will be displaying how its military capabilities can impress, intimidate and remind NATO that Moscow takes its war games very seriously.

Following Russia's 2014 incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, NATO responded with a Readiness Action Plan that, for the first time since the Cold War ended, called for deployment of additional troops to Europe as well an expanded and more dynamic series of military exercises. The increase in forces are relatively small measured in four battalions to the Baltics (two U.S., one Canadian and one U.K.); a rotational U.S. Brigade Combat Team to Poland; and more naval and air assets. The U.S. allocated several billion dollars to the European Defense Initiative for those purposes.

NATO's aim was to reassure allies; reinforce deterrence; and send a clear signal to Moscow that Article 5, the centerpiece of the NATO Treaty stating an attack against one shall be considered an attack against all was fully in force. But NATO did want to over react and hence force Russia to counter-escalate. While these war games will enhance military readiness and NATO's ability to operate together, these forces constitute no direct threat to Russia.

Russia of course does not share a similar view of NATO or of these military maneuvers. Since the Cold War ended, Russia has been increasingly paranoid about NATO surrounding it by extending membership to the Eastern European states that once belonged to the Warsaw Pact under Soviet control. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, complained to the alliance's council about the extent of the ongoing exercises and was reminded that NATO was a defensive organization.

When Zapad 17 begins in September, Russia will no doubt flex its military muscles in a show of force that will exceed in size and in breadth NATO's scheduled exercises. As Russia has adopted a form of the older Western strategy of "flexible response" in which nuclear weapons could be used to offset conventional military inferiority, no doubt nuclear options will be tested. Indeed, General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian Defense Staff, has written and spoken about nuclear weapons serving to "de-escalate conflict by escalation" meaning using them to offset what is seen as a substantial U.S. and Western conventional advantage.

Further, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is located on a peninsula in the Baltic physically distant from Russia, will play a major role in these war games. Moscow actually and incredibly believes that NATO has plans to invade and occupy Kaliningrad. So part of the exercise most likely will be to defend against this putative NATO onslaught.

Given Kaliningrad is well inside NATO's borders, Russia understands that these war games will generate considerable anxiety beyond nearby NATO members. Moscow will be using these reactions to intimidate and to divide the alliance further through this show of force and the scale of military power present in Kaliningrad and available in adjacent international waters. Russia will also make sure that nuclear options are part of these war games as a further warning to NATO.

Russians have read the great military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz who wrote war is a contest of wills and understand the political and strategic consequences of exercising that power both in peace and in war. Hence, Zapad 17 almost certainly will have the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster war movie in its scope and how it is presented in the media both in Russia and beyond. One goal will be to contrast how puny NATO's exercises have been in comparison. And Russia will also be playing to an international audience for weapons sales and marketing and expanding its influence with these shows of force.

NATO would be wise to have a counter-narrative in place as well as plans to check and neutralize Russia's exploitation of Zapad as it attempts to manipulate the media---a capacity it has displayed with some success to effect geostrategic and political aims, namely to weaken NATO. Whether NATO rises to this challenge or not will be a test of its ability to operate imaginatively and cleverly in this media driven environment. In this case, NATO must be exercising not only to prevent war but to show that it cannot and will not be shocked or awed by Moscow's shows of force in its war games.

Dr. Harlan Ullman has Served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-2016) and is currently Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Wars It Starts will be published in the fall. The writer can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.

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