Over the coming weeks, both NATO and Russia will launch a series of super-high-end war games. These games are hardly for fun — rather, they are deadly serious practice sessions for hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thousands of combat aircraft, and flotillas of combat ships.
While no one will die (other than by accident, a not uncommon occurrence in such exercises), the messages going back and forth are crystal clear: We are prepared for war, James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, wrote in an op-ed for Bloomberg.
Russia’s exercise is called Vostok — which means “east” — and will be held principally east of the Ural Mountains. It is the largest military exercise by Russia since Soviet times (in 1981) and will deploy 300,000 troops and more than 1,000 military aircraft. Of note, China will participate with thousands of its troops operating alongside the Russians (there will also be a token contingent of troops from Mongolia, which has been a partner to both Russia and NATO at times).
The message to the West is obvious: Russia and China might work together militarily against NATO in the East or the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific. The futuristic novel “Ghost Fleet” by Peter Singer and August Cole gives an excellent description of a high-tech war that begins unexpectedly in the Pacific with Russia and China allied against the U.S. These war games provide a preview of that sort of military activity could look like — and it should be very worrisome to U.S. planners.
NATO will conduct its own huge military exercise, named Trident Junction 2018. It will take place on the northern borders of the alliance and will involve 40,000 troops from all 29 nations, a couple of hundred aircraft and dozens of warships. While not as spectacularly large as Russia’s Vostok, it will serve as a “graduation exercise” for NATO’s new Spearhead Force, a serious, highly mobile capability that can put NATO combat troops into the Baltic states to repulse a Russian invasion within a matter of days.
Of note, two high-capability militaries that are not NATO members, but are close coalition partners — Sweden and Finland — will participate. The Russians are deeply concerned about the possibility of Sweden and Finland considering NATO membership, and their involvement in Trident Junction will stoke those fears in Moscow. All of this means tension and the possibility of miscalculation. We should pay particular attention to four key elements of these very serious games.
First, one needs to recognize that there are internal messages working here on both sides. In the Russian case (and especially from the perspective of President Vladimir Putin), the games signal the high capability and professionalism of the nation’s troops. This builds on the patriotic pride that was created by the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, and is a signal to the general population that their military is more than capable of holding on to those gains.
As for NATO, the message is similar, and directed toward the front-line states that border Russia — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Norway — and NATO partners Finland and Sweden. In the West, the message is one of capability and credibility — a willingness to fight if necessary.
Second, the role of China is nuanced. The Russian games were originally conceived as a deterrent not to NATO, but to China. Let’s face it: China, with its vastly larger population and need for economic growth, looks at the vast, natural-resource-rich tracts of Siberia the way a dog looks at a rib-eye steak. Yet a growing nationalism on the part of President Xi Jinping and unease over the Donald Trump administration’s hawkish policies on trade has China looking to develop a stronger relationship with Moscow. And Russia, frustrated with the antipathy of the U.S. (driven these days not by the White House but by Congress) is willing to draw nearer to China. While the longer-term relationship is fraught, it is a partnership (and a war game) of convenience at the moment.
Third, there is real military improvement that stems from such exercises. Pushing the European allies and Canada to deploy troops allows an increase in military interoperability on many fronts: technical synchronization of radio communications; alignment of targeting from different nations’ aircraft (a significant challenge in the NATO Libyan operation, for example); highly complex anti-submarine warfare operations; and multi-unit infantry and armor maneuver. All of these are challenging, and practice will make both sides much closer to perfect.
Finally, it is worth looking specifically at the maritime dimension of both the Russian and NATO exercises. It is not a coincidence that the NATO operation will be commanded not by a general, but rather by a four-star U.S. admiral, Jamie Foggo. A former commander of NATO submarine forces and the legendary U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, Foggo has thought deeply (and frequently published) about maritime operations in the current NATO-Russia environment. There will be significant maritime groups both from NATO and Russia operating in the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, eastern Mediterranean and even the Arctic.