As the two old, cold war adversaries, Russia and NATO, prepare to begin massive war games to show off their respective military strengths, it was the UK’s turn to accuse Russia first of “testing the West” by conducting war games on NATO’s eastern flank in its biggest military exercise in four years. Speaking on BBC’s “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that Russia’s exercise “is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defenses, and that’s why we have to be strong. Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity. We’re seeing a more aggressive Russia. We have to deal with that.”
In a testament to our hyperbolic times, Fallon’s statement also contained just a “little bit” of fake news: while Fallon said that more than 100,000 Russian and Belorussian troops are at the borders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said last month that the so-called Zapad 2017 exercise Sept. 14-20 involves 13,000 troops, and that the drills are “purely of a defensive nature” according to Bloomberg.
To this end, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also told BBC today that Russia should allow western monitors to access the proceedings, in line with rules that require international observation of all exercises involving more than 13,000 troops. “We have seen before that Russia has used big military exercises as a disguise or a precursor for aggressive military actions against their neighbors,” Stoltenberg said. “That happened in Georgia in 2008 when they invaded Georgia, and it happened in Crimea in 2014 when they illegally annexed Crimea. So we call on Russia to be fully transparent.”
Stoltenberg also said that Russia has a history of “under-reporting” the number of troops in its exercises and “using loopholes in international agreements to avoid international observation,” although it was not clear just which country Putin had an intention of invading next.
Meanwhile, what the NATO commander forgot to mention is that just days before the dreaded Russian “Zapad 2017” exercise is set to begin, NATO’s own Steadfast Pyramid 2017 military exercise kicked off in Latvia on Sunday, with 40 senior commanders from NATO states, as well as Finland and Sweden. They are expected to train how to “plan and conduct operations” amid the bloc’s buildup in the region.
Steadfast Pyramid 2017 and Steadfast Pinnacle 2017, involving more than 40 senior officers from NATO member states, plus Finland and Sweden, will take place at the Riga-based Latvian Defense Academy, the country’s national news agency LETA reported on Sunday.
Covering the duration of Russia’s drills, Steadfast Pyramid, the first part of the exercise, will last until September 15. It is reportedly “to improve the ability of top-level officers and commanders to plan and lead joint operations,” according to LETA. Steadfast Pinnacle, the next stage of the drill, will last from September 17 until September 22. Steadfast Pyramid and Steadfast Pinnacle were first held in Latvia in 2011. British General James Everard, the NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, is expected to arrive in Latvia to oversee both stages of the exercise, Latvia’s Defense Ministry said, according to LETA.
Meanwhile, not much is known so far about NATO’s war games. A NATO fact sheet says Steadfast Pyramid and Steadfast Pinnacle are focused on “further developing the abilities of commanders and senior staff to plan and conduct operations through the application of operational art in decision making.”
Latvia, a former Soviet republic, has seen a major NATO buildup over the past months. Recently, NATO deployed four multinational battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland as part of Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP). These combat-ready battlegroups, led by the UK, Canada, Germany, and the US respectively, are meant to demonstrate “the strength of the transatlantic bond.” A 1,100-strong battlegroup led by Canada is stationed in Latvia, comprising a number of mechanized infantry units as well as a tank company and some support elements, according to NATO.
While NATO has denied it, Moscow has repeatedly accused NATO of offensive behavior, and justifies its own defensive buildup and posture on NATO’s encroachment on Russian borders.
Meanwhile, blissfully unconcerned about the Russian response, Poland and the Baltics have been calling for a stronger military presence in their countries, claiming it is necessary to deter “assertive” Russia. Lithuania has gone so far as suggesting developing a “military Schengen project that would facilitate the movement of troops in Europe.” Earlier this week, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg – as well as Finland and Estonia, support the plan, which includes “simplifying procedures and investing in infrastructure.”
At the same time, Moscow has consistently said the ongoing buildup threatens Russian and European security. In mid-July, Russian envoy to NATO Alexander Grushko said the alliance is pushing forward for “an intensive mastering of the potential theater of military operations, accompanied by the development of the necessary infrastructure.”
To underscore his point, Grushko added that from July to November, NATO will hold 15 drills complementing each other, “which are held in the same operative field and aimed at providing a vast range of support measures.”
Finally, Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier said that Moscow will not remain silent facing emerging threats on its western borders. NATO’s saber-rattling leaves Russia no other choice than to “give a suitable response to all of these actions,” he said, noting that Moscow’s countermeasures will be “much cheaper,” if not quite as technologically advanced, Putin told award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone.