Moscow Reacts Warily to NATO’s Largest Military Exercise in 25 Years
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 11
By: Roger McDermott
January 29, 2020 05:18 PM Age: 2 days
Russia’s political-military leadership frequently criticizes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for its enlargement and for staging military exercises close to Russian borders. This pattern has intensified since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and the subsequent downturn in its relations with the United States and its allies. Surprisingly, therefore, Moscow’s official reaction has been somewhat muted during the current run up to the active phases of NATO’s largest exercise in Europe in 25 years—though some Russian military experts have been making critical comments to the media. On January 23, the US Department of Defense confirmed that a redeployment of United States military personnel had commenced, transferring forces from the homeland to Europe as part of the NATO exercise Defender Europe 2020. The wide-spanning maneuvers will focus on the Baltic States, Poland and Georgia, involving more than 36,000 personnel from 11 countries (Lenta.ru, January 26, 2020).
Russian news outlets have highlighted that this year’s Defender Europe exercise scenario is based on a war breaking out on the continent in 2028, between NATO and an enemy close to its borders. Additional reports stressed the scale of the exercise, with 28,000 US military personnel participating, including the deployment of 20,000 from the United States. Referring to the magnitude of the drills, Vadim Kozyulin, a professor at the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, compared them to the 1983 Able Archer, which resulted in Soviet forces being placed on alert. Despite the scale of Defender Europe 2020 not even coming close to Able Archer 1983, a number of the upcoming exercise’s features may well cause concern for the Russian defense establishment (Lenta.ru, January 26, 2020). Kozyulin asserted, “Such large-scale exercises will seriously aggravate the situation. Moreover, the main events will be held in Poland, Georgia and the Baltic countries, which not only border Russia, but also [exhibit] an unfriendly attitude toward our country” (Km.ru, January 27).
These reports also stressed a number of aspects of the exercise that may help explain the lack of an official response from Moscow thus far. Defender Europe will become an annual NATO exercise with a large-scale iteration planned for even-numbered years and smaller versions occurring in between. US military personnel will constitute the bulk of the force this year, with European allies collectively providing only 8,000 personnel. As Russian analysts expect, moving the forces, equipment and hardware will prove quite challenging to the North Atlantic Alliance forces. Moreover, Defender Europe 2020 is the first exercise of its kind, which may have persuaded Russia’s defense leadership to cautiously study the exercise in all its various elements before responding to it (Km.ru, January 27, 2020; Lenta.ru, January 26, 2020; Rusvesna.su, January 25, 2020).
American forces withdraw 3,000 soldiers from allied exercise in northern Norway
U.S. troops will take part in Cold Response, the Norway-led winter drills, but with substantially fewer soldiers than originally planned.
The exercise that is due 2-18th March 2020 was planned to include up to 19,000 troops, of them 10,500 Americans. Now, 3,000 of the American troops are withdrawn.
Less participating U.S. troops was first reported about by the newspaper Fremtiden.
The Norwegian Armed Forces confirm that the exercise will be held without all the planned American participation. It is the enhanced American engagement in the Middle East that has made the Pentagon change its plans, spokesman for the Norwegian Armed Forces’ operational headquarters. Lt. Col. Ivar Moen says to NRK.
The tense relations with Iran has consequences also for many of the Americans that currently serve in northern Norway, Moen confirms to the broadcaster.
The Cold Response has been held every other year since 2006. This year’s exercise will be held mainly in the southern part of region Troms and Finnmark, the Norwegian Armed Forces say.
The distance to the Russian border is several hundred kilometers.
The exercise is to enhance the ability of allied troops to carry out joint multinational operations in an environment of high-intensity battle and challenging winter conditions. It also include a high focus on landing operations with marine forces making it to land with landing ships and helicopters to attack enemy positions, the military organizers from the Norwegian Armed Forces’ operational headquarters say.
Cold Response 2020 was thought to become the biggest ever of the bi-annual exercise. However, without the Americans, this year’s drills will not be as extensive as planned.
Also the UK, Netherlands, Germay, France, Belgium, Denmark, Latvia, Finland and Sweden will take part.
Joint allied training in northern Norway has over the years intensified. Several NATO countries regularly train their troops in north Norwegian facilities and the U.S. has a permanent rotating unit of up to 700 men in the area.
In 2019, Norway hosted the Trident Juncture, a major NATO exercise that included more than 50,000 soldiers from 31 countries.
The reported lack of capacity among U.S forces to take part in the Cold Response comes after Norway earlier said it would not be able to take part in the U.S-lead exercise Defender Europe-20.
«For 2020, Norway focuses on exercise Cold Response and participation in the Swedish exercise Aurora 2020, and therefore has little capacity to participate in any of the exercises in the U.S. Defender 2020 campaign plan,» says spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense, Per-Thomas Bøe told the Barents Observer.
US pledges full energy supply to Belarus
During a visit to Minsk, US top diplomat Mike Pompeo has said Washington wants to help Belarus safeguard its sovereignty. Pompeo said US energy producers were ready to deliver 100% of the oil Belarus needs.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday that his country was ready to supply Belarus' energy needs, filling a gap left by Russia, which recently cut off oil supplies.
"The United States wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country," Pompeo said in a joint news conference with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
"Our energy producers stand ready to deliver 100% of the oil you need at competitive prices. We're the biggest energy producer in the world and all you have to do is call us,'' Pompeo added.
Pompeo has become the highest-ranking US official to visit Belarus in over a decade, as he kicks off a tour to several former Soviet republics in eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Relations between the US and Belarus have been frosty for some time. Since President Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, Belarus has suppressed dissent and has seen its human rights record widely criticized.
On Saturday, the US State Department said in a statement that Pompeo's visit would "underscore the US commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalize our bilateral relations."
Competing with Russia
Pompeo's announcement on energy supplies comes a month after Russia, Belarus' main provider of cheap energy, stopped supplying its oil, following the two countries' failure to renegotiate an agreed oil price for 2020.
Moscow had asked Minsk to accept greater economic integration with Russia in return for energy resources at favorable domestic prices.
The conflict has led Belarus to fear for its sovereignty, with Lukashenko accusing Russia of stopping energy supplies in order "to dissolve Belarus.''
Since then, the Belarusian president has vowed to seek alternative oil suppliers and announced Friday that negotiations with the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were ongoing.
Normalization of relations
Following the 2006 Belarusian presidential election, which was marred by allegations that Lukashenko was involved in "human rights abuses related to political repression," the US imposed sanctions on him.
Belarus responded by recalling its ambassador from the US and in 2008, the Belarusian government "unilaterally forced the US Embassy to withdraw its ambassador and reduce its staff from 35 to five diplomats."
Efforts to restore diplomatic relations are ongoing, with Pompeo promising to staff the embassy and name a new US ambassador. On Saturday, Lukashenko lamented the "absolutely groundless misunderstandings of the past authorities'' and welcomed Pompeo's visit.
The secretary of state said Belarus had made "real progress'' in reforms, including on human rights, but that more needed to be done to bring about a lifting of US sanctions.
Makei acknowledged the need to make some changes. "Belarus is probably not a most ideal country in this regard, and we do understand that we must implement some reforms in many areas, including the area of human rights — and we are doing this," he said.
Edited by BansheeOne, 02 February 2020 - 0536 AM.