In the last month, Russia has launched “snap drills” involving thousands of troops across the country. In mid-March, exercises with some 38,000 troops from the Western Military District and the Northern Fleet – which face NATO Europe – were initiated. The large-scale drills in western Russia reportedly included more than 3,300 combat vehicles, 110 aircraft, and 56 ships and submarines.
The nation-wide drills eventually expanded to 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, and some 10,000 pieces of ground equipment, with exercise areas including the Far East as well as southern Russia and the Caucasus. A large contingent from the Western Military District and Northern Fleet deployed to the Arctic for massive-scale drills. Prior to that, paratroopers deployed to the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, and most of the Baltic Fleet turned out to tool around the Baltic Sea.
During this period, Russia pulled out of an important consultative forum of the Conventional Forces Europe agreement. Russian war planes also operated incommunicado over the Baltic Sea, an especially dangerous practice, during segments of the much-smaller NATO exercise, Atlantic Resolve, in Eastern Europe.
These moves convey the opposite of a posture of cooperation and good faith, at a time when Russia has dramatically increased the number of snap drills – unannounced drills – by her forces. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg (the official whom Obama ignored last week in Washington) made this point during a visit to the UK in mid-March:
“There are more and more snap exercises with no prior notification,” Stoltenberg told the Guardian during a visit to London. “It is important we keep the channels for military communication open to have as much transparency as possible to avoid misunderstandings and to make sure that incidents don’t spiral and get out of control.”
“Every nation has the right to conduct exercises, as long as they do it within their international obligations,” the secretary general said. “But the recent Russian practice of calling snap exercises is of serious concern. Sudden, unpredictable and surprise military maneuvers contribute to instability.
“Russia has conducted about a dozen snap exercises over the past two years. Russia’s takeover of Crimea was done under the guise of a snap exercise. Nato has not conducted snap exercises since the end of the cold war.”
The extensive, large-scale drills by Russia, and the ominous change in her overall posture, make an interesting contrast with the activity of U.S. forces in Europe. Last week, Military Times reported on some 1,200 U.S. troops conducting exercises in Romania and the Baltic Republics. 800 of them were converging on the training area of Smarden in Romania: 200 Army paratroopers jumping into Smarden, and 600 soldiers from the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment simulating a ground attack on Romania’s Mikhail Kogalniceanu Air Base.
The other contingent in the Baltics pushes the boundary of “interesting” to the edge of “poignant.” These are the 400 soldiers of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment who’ve been making a lengthy road march through Northeastern Europe called Operation Dragoon Ride.
As noted by a fascinated media, Dragoon Ride is the first road march of any comparable distance through Europe by U.S. armor forces since World War II. For decades, large formations of U.S. forces have moved by rail and air to exercise areas, trundling by on night trains and keeping a low profile. This time, the Yanks are out to be seen.
The contingent is far too small, with a total of 400 troops and some 120 vehicles, including the Stryker armored fighting vehicle, to represent a threat to Russia – or even a deterrent to a Russian invasion force in the tens of thousands.
But it is making its way on the European highways across six countries, from its exercise deployment objective in the Baltic Republics – Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia – back to its base in Vilseck, Germany. And along the way, it’s been stopping in a town every day and giving the locals a chance to visit with the American soldiers and view their equipment.
Said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe:
“The whole purpose … is to assure those allies that live closest to the Bear that we are here… You heard our president say very clearly, we will defend our allies, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland.”
Operation Dragoon Ride was Hodges’ brainchild.
The ride, which will be a first for many soldiers, represents a leader development opportunity that will test the unit’s maintenance abilities, while providing a “very visible” show of assurance to local residents, Hodges said.
Hodges envisions the soldiers and their Strykers will travel for half a day at a time before stopping at the nearest village or town, giving them time to interact with the local population.
“I envision kids crawling over those vehicles, sort of a public awareness kind of thing as well,” he said.
Will we defend those allies, situated so vulnerably across Russia’s border? With the current occupant of the Oval Office, that question is as important as whether we can. I imagine many who have worn the uniform understand viscerally General Hodges’ perspective on the commitment to our allies: how badly he wants us to live up to it; how perhaps he can help shape our response, if the time should come, by laying down a marker we can’t back away from without anguish of conscience.
Hodges must recognize the trends that undermine the commitment, however, starting with the questionable reliability of his own commander-in-chief. Another problematic trend is the fecklessness of NATO’s core membership – still its wealthiest membership – on defense spending, as recently exemplified by Britain’s proposal (see Guardian link) to count national intelligence spending as defense spending, rather than actually making a more robust effort to modernize and improve UK forces. (The U.S., just to be clear, isn’t doing much better.)
Rifts in the alliance over its biggest current challenge – Ukraine – aren’t a positive sign either. After a blunt assessment of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine in late February, from General Philip Breedlove, the U.S. Air Force officer currently serving as the commander of NATO forces, Germany expressed annoyance at his saying such things in public, and even offered a contrary assessment. We can be certain of two things: Breedlove’s assessment is the correct one, and the blood of Poles and the Baltic peoples runs cold at the spectacle of NATO speaking without unity on such a point.
NATO may be squidgy around the edges, but Russia is a dog with a bone. Even this relatively minor show of force is too much for the land of snap drills with 80,000 troops. According to a UPI report on 20 March, Russia issued “harsh condemnations” and warnings about Operation Dragoon Ride, the day before the road march from the Baltics to Germany began.
The [Russian foreign] ministry…warned that it hopes Europe “does see the risk of unconditionally following advice from U.S. generals and will not opt for approaches that will rule out the risk of a slide towards a military confrontation between Russia and NATO.”
And last week, apparently on Wednesday 25 March, the Russians mounted another incommunicado air operation over the Baltic, reportedly coming as close as 12 miles away from the Dragoon Ride convoy as it sat in a static display in a supermarket parking lot near Lithuania’s border with Poland.
As with the similar flight of Russian war planes the previous week, their number included Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers. Danish and Italian fighters intercepted the Russian aircraft and escorted them to Kaliningrad. The closest point of approach of “12 miles” no doubt refers to 12 nautical miles, the edge of Lithuanian territorial air space. Regardless, the Backfires – or their Su-27 Flanker escorts – could have launched ordnance at the Strykers from even farther away.
What is there to say? Americans in 2015 have good reason to be unsure that Barack Obama would defend even the United States against an attack. A small, non-state attack across our border is by no means infeasible. Such an attack, even a small one, would have outsize import if we failed to react decisively to it. And it is legitimate to fear that Obama would not.
It’s obvious where General Hodges’ heart is, and General Breedlove’s. But the situation now is one in which we are more certain of Vladimir Putin than of any of NATO’s political leaders. May God have mercy on us all.