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On January 22, 2024, General Chris Cavoli, NATO Commander-in-Chief, announced the commencement of Steadfast Defender 2024, the largest exercise in recent decades, involving 90,000 military personnel from NATO member states and the candidate country Sweden. The training, set to run until the end of May, aims to simulate an evolving conflict scenario against a nearly equal adversary. The exercises serve the purpose of practicing the implementation of defense plans, detailing NATO's response to a potential Russian attack. While the official communication from the Alliance does not explicitly mention Russia, the key strategic document acknowledges Moscow as the most significant and direct threat to NATO member states.
The extensive military maneuvers are set to include over 50 different types of ships, ranging from aircraft carriers to destroyers, as well as more than 80 fighters, helicopters, drones, and at least 1,100 combat vehicles, including 133 tanks and 533 BMPs. The objective of Steadfast Defender 2024 is to demonstrate NATO's capacity to swiftly deploy forces from North America and other alliance regions to enhance the defense of Europe.
The second part of the Steadfast Defender exercise will primarily focus on the deployment of NATO's rapid reaction force in Poland. Notably, the last NATO exercises of such magnitude occurred in 1988, engaging over 125,000 soldiers.
This article delves into why the topic of NATO exercises triggers propagandists and explores the repercussions of Russian troop exercises in 2008, 2014, and 2022.
What prompts Russia's significant concern about NATO?
The NATO topic stands out as a central focus around which Russian propaganda constructs a framework of falsehoods, manipulations, and disinformation messages. Since the dissolution of the USSR, eleven Eastern European states and three former Soviet republics have joined the Alliance, leading to heightened anxiety within Russia about NATO's expansion. In the year 2000, when Putin served as president, there was not an outright rejection of Russia's potential membership in the Alliance. However, over time, propaganda, aligning with the Russian leadership, began depicting NATO as a cunning adversary progressively encroaching upon Russian borders.
The toxic narrative became particularly pronounced after Euromaidan, marking Ukraine's departure from the Russian sphere of influence and its decision to pursue a Euro-Atlantic course. Propagandists frequently portray NATO as an aggressive entity, provoking Russia through regular military exercises and attempting to incite conflict. They argue that NATO's involvement in global conflicts, such as the "Allied Power" operation or the bombing of Yugoslavia, only exacerbates tensions and destabilizes regions instead of fostering peace. Since the 1990s, there are claims that the Alliance consistently sought to provoke Russia through its policy of eastward expansion. Propagandists often cite assurances given to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand further east after the 1990 German reunification, though these assurances were not formalized in any document and likely pertained to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
To justify its actions, Russia propagated the notion that Ukraine's desire to join NATO posed a direct threat to Russian security. However, when considering Finland's recent neutral status shift to NATO in April 2023, Russia's reaction was comparatively subdued, even though it now shares a western border with NATO along with the majority of the Baltic Sea coastline under the Alliance's control. If Ukraine's NATO aspirations purportedly triggered pre-emptive strikes by Russia in 2014 and 2022, the accession of neighboring Finland elicited a notably milder response.
How the Alliance Executed the "Fifth Article Rehearsal"
NATO's military exercises are designed to enhance the collective defense capabilities of the alliance and improve coordination among member states. The frequency and magnitude of these exercises can vary, ranging from small-scale drills to large multinational maneuvers involving ground forces, navies, aviation, and special operations units. A distinctive feature of NATO's military exercises is the active participation of forces from multiple member states. Beyond their military objectives, these exercises hold political significance, showcasing solidarity among member states and reinforcing NATO's commitment to the concept of collective defense.
Commencing in 2010 in response to Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, regular exercises by NATO and US military units on NATO's eastern flank have become a recurring practice. The annual Saber Strike exercise initially focused on training soldiers from the Baltic states and evolved over the years into a collective defense effort for the eastern flank. In 2018, the program involved 18,000 military personnel from 19 countries. Although the exercises became biennial, with no sessions in 2019, and disruptions in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, they resumed in 2022, just four days after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, engaging 13,000 troops from 13 countries.
Prior to 2014, NATO exercises primarily concentrated on crisis management capabilities, but after Russia's annexation of Crimea, the focus gradually shifted to collective defense. The Alliance established a "forward force" named the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, comprising 5,000 soldiers. However, the first major exercises under the collective defense scenario for the Joint Task Force of Very High Readiness occurred in the fall of 2018 in Norway, involving about 50,000 military personnel in Trident Juncture 2018.
In 2020, the Defender-Europe exercises marked the first U.S. maneuvers on European soil in several decades. However, pandemic-related restrictions limited the deployment of the armored division. In 2021, quarantine measures also constrained a relatively limited defense operation in the Black Sea region and the Balkans. Defender-Europe 21 was coordinated with NATO's large-scale exercise, Steadfast Defender 21, focused on deploying U.S. forces in Romania with the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. These exercises returned to Central and Eastern Europe the following year.
The year 2023 witnessed a heightened intensity of international military exercises among NATO's North-Eastern flank countries, accompanied by enhanced coordination. This marked the pinnacle of a trend that began after 2014, as NATO member countries shifted their emphasis from training individual troop types to prioritizing collective defense.
Agitprop reaction to the intensification of exercises on NATO's eastern flank
The North Atlantic Alliance has set a course for a "final and irreversible return to the Cold War schemes," the Russian Foreign Ministry said: "It is characteristic that the preparation of the exercises takes place in an artificially heated atmosphere of military psychosis." This is the "provocative course of Brussels", as noted in one of the propaganda resources: "NATO is not just playing on nerves, but is really openly preparing for war with Russia." We see a typical mirroring tactic. Propagandists make the same accusations against Ukraine, the USA, the EU, the "collective West" that they make against Russia. At the same time, Russian agitprop uses both real and fictional pretexts for accusations.
Belarusian manipulators call Steadfast Defender 2024 "preparation for the third world war." Propagandists also call NATO a "relic" of the Cold War and accuse this "relic" of wanting to bring back the arms race inherent in that era. But despite the scale and intensity of NATO's military exercises, they are still small when compared to similar exercises of the Cold War era, for example, with the annual campaign Reforger, Return of Forces to Germany (1969-1993), which aimed to confirm NATO's potential in in the event of a war with the Warsaw Pact countries and to quickly deploy significant forces in West Germany.
The Kremlin is trying to present Steadfast Defender 2024 as a provocation from NATO, while forgetting that it was Russia that violated the security consensus and the principle of inviolability of borders in Europe, which developed after the Second World War and the creation of the UN, undermining any guarantees of peace. With an aggressor at its side, the Alliance is forced to follow the Latin principle Si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war).
"NATO wasp nests" in Ukraine
The Kremlin systematically tried to increase anti-NATO hysteria not only among ordinary Russians, but also transferred its own fears of "NATO threats" to neighboring countries. For example, in 2006, the Sea Breeze international exercises were to take place in Crimea. But pro-Russian public activists and the local Crimean "opposition" in the form of pro-Russian forces - the Party of Regions and Communists - with the support of the Russian leadership, organized thematic protests in Feodosia, in which from several hundred to 2.5 thousand people took part. As a result, the planned international exercises were disrupted, and the military transport ship Advantage, which delivered to the port of Feodosia the necessary materials for the renovation of the training base of the Old Crimea training ground of the Navy of Ukraine, was never unloaded. Agitprop described these events as "anti-NATO protests throughout Ukraine." Propaganda publications assured that NATO ships brought secret American weapons, poisonous substances and explosives to Feodosia, although in fact, as reported in the US Embassy, it was paint, batteries and light weapons used during exercises. Deputies of the Russian State Duma came to the peninsula and called on Moscow to ignore the borders of Ukraine and "return" Crimea to Russia in accordance with the Kyuchuk-Kainardzhii Treaty of 1774. In the same 2006, the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea declared the peninsula a "territory without NATO", however, the decision was legally null and void.
The agitprop hysteria about the ephemeral "NATO bases" in Ukraine has not abated. In early 2008, after Ukraine submitted an application to join the NATO Membership Action Plan at the Alliance's Bucharest Summit (in the end, Ukraine never received the MAP), the then President Yushchenko had to assure the Russians that there would be no bases on the territory of Ukraine: "If the Russian side is worried about military bases, then Ukraine will never go for it." Shortly before that, Putin called Ukraine's accession to NATO an internal matter, but urged Kyiv to think about the consequences, since after the possible location of the bases, Russia would be forced to target them with its missile and nuclear forces.
According to the propaganda version, contrary to the "will of the Ukrainians", at least nine NATO "wasp nests" appeared on the territory of Ukraine. At the same time, the manipulators warn that "no foreign military contingent fits under the strict definition of "military base", because foreign troops are "smeared" by Ukraine, like butter on a sandwich." Yavoriv, Ochakiv, Port Pivdenny are supposedly three "open" NATO bases in Ukraine, but, according to their version, there are also "hidden" ones in the Mykolaiv, Kherson, Rivne, Chernihiv, Donetsk, Sumy regions, on the Zmiiny island. Also, one base was allegedly built in Siverskodonetsk in the Luhansk region in 2021. In other words, the propagandists listed some large training grounds where military training took place, and called them "NATO bases" for no reason. Such propaganda aims to cause mistrust of the authorities — they say, without informing people, it allows the use of the territory of Ukraine for the training of foreign troops, which is contrary to the 17th article of the Constitution of Ukraine. Theses about secret military bases align with more general conspiracy theories, appealing to people who tend to believe in ulterior motives and covert operations by powerful organizations, "shadow governments" or reptilians. It is much more difficult to debunk such allegations than to disseminate them - for a refutation, it would be necessary, for example, to bring journalists who would highlight the absence of "NATO mercenaries" with their secret weapons at a certain Ukrainian training ground. But since the military facilities are state-owned, such publicity is simply impossible.
"Training" as a Prelude to Invasion
Throughout NATO's history, there hasn't been a single instance where military exercises concluded with an armed aggression against a state. This contrast sharply with Russia, where its "training" often serves as a pretext for subsequent military actions.
In July 2008, prior to the Russo-Georgian war, Russia conducted extensive military maneuvers in the North Caucasus involving significant troop movements—8,000 troops and 700 pieces of equipment. The Russian 58th Combined Arms Army, a unit crucial in the later invasion of Georgia, participated in these exercises. Tensions escalated post-"exercises," leading to the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Fast forward to 2014—Russia's military invasion of Ukraine, specifically the annexation of Crimea, occurred following exceptionally large-scale military exercises. A few days after Yanukovych's departure on February 26, 2014, Putin abruptly raised the troops of the Western Military District, bordering Ukraine, in response to an alert. Subsequent "readiness checks" continued for about a week. In March of the same year, Russian armed forces conducted "intensive field exercises" in regions bordering Ukraine. In April 2014, Russia continued the "maneuvers," involving battalion tactical groups from the Southern and Western military districts, with combat aircraft practicing near the Ukrainian border.
Hence, these "training sessions" represented a stage in preparing for full-scale invasions. Additionally, Moscow exploited another state's territory to initiate a major war against Ukraine, all while accusing the West of conducting a "proxy" war on Ukrainian soil. Before the extensive conflict with Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russian troops were stationed in Belarus, some of whom participated in the war on Ukrainian territory, with Belarus used for missile and air strikes.
In the lead-up to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia, under the guise of the "Union Resolve-2022" exercises, relocated its troops to Belarus. Simultaneously, maneuvers were announced, blocking Ukraine's Black and Azov Seas, with large amphibious ships involved. Officially, the number of soldiers was stated to be under 9,000. However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reported a significant transfer of Russian forces to Belarus—approximately 30,000 combat-ready troops, special operations forces, S-400 air defense systems, fighter jets like the Su-35, and dual-use Iskander missile systems. Despite the official end of the "exercises," Moscow and Minsk continued to "test response forces" until February 24, 2022. Russian military, later captured by Ukraine's Defense Forces, claimed they thought they were participating in mere "training" and were unaware of the impending war.
While military exercises serve legitimate educational and defense purposes in many countries, the scale, timing, and context of Russian "exercises" in certain instances underscore the Kremlin's aggressive actions, using them as a guise to attack sovereign states.
In December 2023, Putin asserted that Russia had "absolutely no reason" and "no interest" in initiating a conflict with NATO countries. This response came following US President Joe Biden's remarks suggesting that, in the event of Ukraine's defeat, Russia might target a NATO member.
Similar rhetoric emerged from the Kremlin in February 2022, rejecting notions of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In January 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Moscow had no inclination for war with Ukraine, emphasizing, "If it depends on the Russian Federation, there will be no war. We don't want wars," later characterizing any potential action as a "preventive" strike.
Experts from the Institute for the Study of War posit that Putin perceives the West as vulnerable and aims to dismantle NATO. Despite Putin's disavowal of interest in a conflict with the Alliance, he accused NATO member countries of artificially creating a conflict between Russia and Finland and purportedly pulling the latter into the Alliance. According to his reasoning, NATO's recent expansion led to the establishment of the Leningrad Military District and the concentration of military units in northwestern Russia.
Citing European intelligence sources, the German tabloid Bild suggests that Russia might contemplate an attack on Europe in the winter of 2024 or 2025, taking advantage of the period when the US will lack a president temporarily after elections, hindering a swift response to security challenges. The potential target could be the Baltic countries or others. Ukrainian diplomats express concerns that Russia is exploring ways to escalate tensions, possibly testing NATO's commitment under Article 5. However, some experts argue that Russia may refrain from violating the NATO border and instead focus on actions in the realms of cybersecurity, civil society, and the economy. Meanwhile, non-NATO countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova remain at risk.
Certainly, a standoff between NATO and Russia exists, and it is Russia's aggressive conduct and unwarranted aggression against Ukraine, rather than the Alliance's security exercises, that heighten the likelihood of escalation.