Ph.D in History, Assistant professor of the Chair of International Relations and Diplomacy at the Moscow Humanitarian University
The Russian-Belorussian "West 2013" exercise and its NATO counterpart, "Exercise Steadfast Jazz", which practically coincided this autumn, were given particular prominence in the context of the relationship between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance at the close of this year’s political season thanks to the mass media. The pattern of change in European and global “hard security” processes puts it in the limelight of media and public attention, rather than just that of narrow groups of experts.
The Russian-Belorussian "West 2013" exercise and its NATO counterpart, "Exercise Steadfast Jazz", which practically coincided this autumn, were given particular prominence in the context of the relationship between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance at the close of this year’s political season thanks to the mass media.
Such interest in maneuvers and exercises on the part of the public is entirely reasonable, given the backdrop of the drastically new military and political landscape in Europe and Eurasia, which is now distinctly taking shape after two decades in the making. The pattern of change in European and global “hard security” processes puts it in the limelight of media and public attention, rather than just that of narrow groups of experts.
With this in mind, there is nothing new about Russian and foreign (largely East European) press and internet resources focusing on operations that should be perceived as entirely ordinary for any army in the world. The media have behaved the same way before, whenever issues of the improved combat readiness of Russian armed forces (or those of its adversaries from among the NATO countries) emerged from staff rooms and out into testing grounds.
Russian and European policy-makers, reporters and experts paint each such emergence with certain political colours depending on the state of the Russian-NATO relationship and the political situation in the world. More often than not, these colors are dark. Only a handful of observers allow themselves a little irony when discussing military matters ; overall, mutual accusations of lack of transparency in war preparations have become a habitual element in the official political and expert discourse on NATO and Russia relations. More precisely, these are discussions of relations between Moscow and the relevant allied capitals, in particular those of the Baltic countries.
This situation has become standard, as any flurry of activity by the Russian military at NATO’s eastern borders has become a matter of concern not so much for Brussels or Washington as for Tallinn, Vilnius or Riga. This kind of anxiety relates directly to the general state of relations between Russia and EU/NATO’s East European wing. It reflects numerous collisions in Russian-NATO relations that generate militarist rhetoric on both sides even though they generally fall outside the domain of defense. A new spiral of autumnal tensions between Moscow and certain European capitals on a broad spectrum of non-military issues – from continued European integration of the Eastern Partnership countries to diplomatic scandals – has become an additional irritant for the far-from-peaceful relations between Russia and NATO.
Europe as a Territory of Peace
There is, however, every reason to believe that Moscow and Brussels' current “war games” in Central and Eastern Europe, are unlikely, in and of themselves, to be a harbinger or catalyst for a new phase of aggravation in relations between Russia and the West.
This state of affairs has also been recognized officially: Russia and NATO are well aware of the contents and modes of military exercises pertaining to each other. And although politicians in Russia and NATO countries alike must have saved up enough sharp remarks to fuel the interest of the public , they abstain from any straightforward assessments of their counterpart’s actions and do their best to avoid making mountains out of molehills. The recent exercises have only proved the truth of this in practice.
Even as they exchange gibes yet again, Russian high officials and their Western counterparts reluctantly admit the artificial and forced nature of the issue of military maneuvers, even as it is far from the most important issue in Russia-NATO relations. It is perceived as a legacy of the past rather than an issue of the present . Moscow traditionally prefers to discuss more significant, vital issues of a strategic nature (such as missile defenses and tactical nuclear weapons) directly with Washington, and not at the North Alliance’s headquarters.
NATO war policy experts, in turn, are disinclined to overdramatize war maneuvers. They repudiate reporters’ apocalyptic scenarios of a major war in Europe, despite the persistent and periodically escalating local conflicts in some of its regions. The countries of the continent simply do not have the necessary capabilities for such a war .
Even with NATO's recently emerging added emphasis on its traditional Article 5 (1945 Washington Treaty) collective defense function , the conflicts of interest between Russia and certain EU/NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe seem to be shifting, more and more, away from the military/political plane and into the political and economic sphere.
The relative marginalization of Central and Eastern Europe as a potential theatre of operations has been increasingly obvious. It is not so much Greater Europe but Greater Asia that is key to military planning in the US, among NATO members or equally in Russia.
Lately, the Russian Federation has been eager to shift the centre of gravity in its defense activities from its western to its eastern borders, as suggested by the July 2013 maneuvers in Russia’s Far East. These were the largest of their kind in the past two decades and consisted of a series of 150 tactical, special tactics and special exercises .
There have been similar trends in US military policy of late. As statistics demonstrate, the recent NATO maneuvers in Europe seem to symbolize rather than define the US and its largest West European partners' commitments vis-a-vis their NATO allies among the Baltic States or Visegrad Group countries. Some observers believe that in NATO’s current and future exercises in CEE, Washington and Brussels are placing the emphasis on the CEE national armies, while the involvement of US and West European armed forces will have more of a “supporting” character. Out of the 6,000 troops which NATO intended to deploy in the maneuvers, almost 70 percent were officers and soldiers from Poland and the Baltic republics, whereas the US originally planned to deploy no more than 200 personnel, with just 75 coming from Germany .
Like the Russian Defence Ministry, the Pentagon has been painstakingly emphasizing its Pacific priorities, setting its European allies aside. The fairly modest American armed forces contribution, by its traditional measures, to Steadfast Jazz is in sharp contrast to its full-scale involvement in the joint US-Australian Talisman Saber exercise in July 2013. According to official reports, the latter involved 21,000 US Army and Navy personnel, and 7,000 troops Australian troops .
By contrast, Europe, which has been perceived for many decades as the central arena for military confrontation, is seeing its military activities wane. The truth of this statement seems to be borne out, among other things, by the ongoing reduction of conventional arms in most of European countries, which started immediately at the end of the Cold War. At the beginning of the 21st century, and particularly given the EU crisis, these processes may still be at a fraction of their full strength.
This incontestably positive trend, however, cannot hide the fact that disarmament is pursued not so much through joint efforts of the countries involved and as part of agreements between them, but rather unilaterally, motivated by considerations of entirely national as opposed to international security. Some European countries seek to reduce the concentration of heavy weapons and military equipment within the European region solely because they have no need for them anymore. This motivation can be seen not only among smaller and mid-size NATO allies, some of which (e.g., Denmark) have fully renounced the obsolete concept of territorial defense, but also among some larger countries such as the UK or France, which have instead concentrated on boosting their armed forces’ expeditionary capabilities.
The latter circumstance is not to imply that the topic of limitation and reduction of conventional forces in Europe has been completely exhausted; rather, it puts the issue at a somewhat different angle. The stress is more on confidence-building measures involving different groups of European countries, as well as on ensuring the transparency of their military operations proper.
Transparency Instead of Disarmament
In light of increasing demilitarization of Europe in the area of conventional but morally obsolete heavy weapons, the continent is facing more pressing issues in international control. These concern not so much quantity as quality of armaments and military hardware, the technological advancement of which has increased considerably since the so-called “defense revolution”.
However, the framework of international law now effective across Europe, which underpins national disarmament and military operations, fails to fully reflect recent innovations. Such instruments as the amended CFE Treaty, which has never been put into effect, continue to emphasize the “arithmetic” and “geography” of disarmament. They focus on quantitative rather than qualitative values, and concentrate on the geographic deployment of armaments instead of the spatial and functional capabilities of the latter.
At the same time, advances in modern types of weaponry and military hardware outside the CFE Treaty (unmanned aircraft and naval arms) seem to reframe the issue of international control as far as their use both in general and in the course of exercises is concerned. Since the effectiveness of high-precision weapons does not hinge on their quantities but depends on other factors such as the speed of rapid lift, deployment and utilization, as well as firepower, the focus is now not on cumbersome treaties but on the political institutions which are there to shape a new culture of confidence across Europe and in the Euro-Atlantic region. This is the sort of culture that has emerged in NATO, where its members have built a "security community", and progressed from legal arrangements to a safeguard-based security model in which multiple mutual defense control mechanisms give way to “unconditional” confidence.
By contrast, Russian culture in issues of national and international security continues to proceed largely from a traditional, "legally binding" interpretation. Arms control is perceived rather as a system of mutual verifications and defense facility inspections based on relevant and clear-cut bilateral agreements (the "trust but verify" principle).
However, even this “traditionalism”, which can be attributed to past history and the geopolitical vulnerability of Russia, has been shifting. Some observers argue that Russia appears to trust the “lighter” political arrangements, similar to the updated 2011 Vienna Document, more than the bulky, binding treaties of the CFE variety . Guided by the 2011 Vienna Document provisions, Russian authorities and NATO country leaders have at least managed to implement a stable regime for exchanges on troop movements during maneuvers and exercises aimed at enhancing transparency in military matters.
Apart from the VD 2011, there are also confidence-building measures evolving at the Russia-NATO level. First and foremost, this is the Russia-NATO Council, with its special working group on defense transparency, strategy and armed forces reform. Its distinctive feature is not just mutual exchanges but confidence-building through cooperation. Among other things, this is by way of joint exercises, both at the level of computer simulations and in real-time interoperability of combat troops and service support units. The most recent such exercise, Vigilant Skies 2013, took place in September.
The “Grassroots” Policy Continued
Sergey Lavrov and Anders Fogh Rasmussen at
NATO-Russia Council meeting
The broad coverage in the mass media of Russian and NATO autumn maneuvers, coupled with the fairly cool reaction coming from army officials and diplomats, seems to suggest that the current, working level of collaboration between Russia and the North Atlantic alliance has removed the acerbic political underpinnings that even recently characterized their relations.
Both parties appear to have stumbled upon the kind of collaboration format that can presently satisfy them both. The limits to their cooperation have been defined fairly clearly, with the rejection of the excessive expectations that Moscow and Brussels had for each other earlier in the Russia-NATO dialogue, followed by further, more pragmatic cooperation based on the principle of “give and take”. A range of issues has emerged for which partnership is both desirable and plausible, and which cannot be subject to political bargaining.
In addition, instead of major projects in international security, where NATO and Russia used to have joint interests (as in the Balkans) or still do (as in Afghanistan), the parties seem to be moving steadily along the well-tested route of “grassroots” policy, gradually pushing “high politics” towards bilateral relations (between Moscow and specific NATO members, instead of the alliance as a whole).
In this sense, military exercises seem to be in the middle ground between “pure politics” and the “practicalities” of a relationship. On the one hand, Moscow and Brussels have been pursuing a fairly effective dialogue on improved coordination, joint actions, and further interoperability of assets and capabilities in the war on terror and piracy. On the other, they seem to prefer to avoid any defense-level convergence in joint decision-making on issues relating to the use of assets in such politically sensitive areas as missile defense, peacekeeping, and resolution of “frozen conflicts” in Europe and across the post-Soviet space.
While bringing their positions closer on some issues of European security, and accepting differences in others, Russia and NATO have retained the respective “personal space” they need for military operations they want to conduct without any outside involvement.
At the same time, it is exactly the hidden part of independent military operations by each of the “opponents” that satisfies the public hankering for sensation, and, as a consequence, generates the most avid interest in the topic on the part of the media and internet activists such as WikiLeaks. It is this demand that drives their unwavering efforts to pierce the Russian and NATO "military veil".
Graphic examples of these efforts can be found in provocative comments repeatedly published in the press and on the internet alleging NATO’s secret military plans to defend Poland and the Baltic countries against Russia  – as happened on the eve of 2010 Lisbon Summit, or in regular information leaks in foreign newspapers alleging Russian nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad .
However, while such stories aim to introduce new problems for Russia-NATO relations, they fail to reflect the true essence of real-life processes in defense planning and force development in Russia and in the West, while distracting Moscow and Brussels from addressing the real vital issues of which there are still quite a few in their dialogue.
Both Russian and foreign “news tribes” could find useful employment in covering genuinely pressing issues, instead of concocting fictitious counterparts to them. At the same time, the specific nature of the Russia-Nato relationship appears to exclude any such eventuality.
2. S. Shoigu.: Key threats to Russia are terrorism and NATO. http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/news/2013/11/09/n_3312969.shtml
3. Speaking notes of Deputy Defence Minister of the Russian Federation, H.E. Anatoly Antonov (NRC Ambassadors, 24 July 2013) http://natomission.ru/security/article/security/artnews/205/
5. Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, any act of aggression against any one NATO member is deemed an act of aggression against the entire alliance.
6. Website of the Russian Defence Ministry, 18.07.2013 http://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=11806079@egNews
7. Wojciech Lorenz Steadfast Jazz 2013: NATO on Course to Strike a Better Balance, NATO war games come at tricky time in EU-Russia relations // PISM Bulletin No. 63 (516), 11 June 2013. http://www.pism.pl/files/?id_plik=13895
8. The Australian Army Exercise Talisman Saber 2013 begins. http://www.army.gov.au/Our-work/News-and-media/Exercise-Talisman-Saber-2013-begins
9. See, e.g., the presentation by Lt. Gen. (Rtd.) Evgeny Buzhinsky at the plenary meeting of the OSCE Security Cooperation Forum on 13 February 2013. http://www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/11/13615556880.pdf
10. WikiLeaks cables reveal secret NATO plans to defend Baltics from Russia. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/06/wikileaks-cables-nato-russia-baltics
11. Satellites pinpoint Russian nuclear arms in Baltics. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2001/feb/15/20010215-021129-5026r/?page=all