By Tim Marshall
Nations sometimes signal to each other, and themselves, via a soundbite.
Two examples – An American President says ‘All options are on the table’ – meaning ‘If we have to, we’ll go to war’. A Sinn Fein politician says about the IRA – ‘They haven’t gone away you know’ meaning ‘they still have the guns and can reform if necessary’.
There are various other ways to signal, including much bigger, noisier ways. Two are going on at the moment, one led by Russia, the other, by the United States.
NATO is currently holding its largest airborne military exercise since the end of the Cold War 25 years ago. It’s called Operation Swift Response and involves 5,000 troops from 11 nations operating in 4 countries.
Among the participants is the US 82nd Airborne Division. The last time the 82nd was in Europe was in 1999 during the Kosovo operation when Russia’s inability to control events, in what it still felt was its back yard, was underlined, magnified, and plain to see. It may or may not be a signal for Washington D.C. to use the 82nd for this exercise; either way it will have been noted by Moscow that the Americans have sent a unit whose primary role is to be able to deploy anywhere in the world within 96 hours of notification.
The name of the NATO exercise poses the question ‘Response to what? And the answer is that it is a response to Russian activity in Ukraine and fears for the Baltic States. It is a massive signal to Moscow that NATO is training to fight a war with Russia.
At the same time the Russians are leading several military exercises making it clear – they are training to fight a war with NATO.
In one of the war games units from the Moscow led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)’s Rapid Reaction force have been sent to within 25 miles of Russia’s border with Estonia
More than 3,000 soldiers from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, are rehearsing ‘localizing an armed conflict and eliminating illegal armed formations in the Eastern European region’. This can be read various ways including meaning what Moscow regards as illegal armed formations in Ukraine.
The world viewed from Moscow looks very different from that viewed from Paris, London, or Washington.
Western countries are aware of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea last year, what amounts to the annexing of parts of Georgia, and the increase in probes by Russian war planes and submarines. Russians are reminded that over the past 18 months NATO has doubled its military exercises and massively increased reconnaissance flight along the Russian border. The USA has sent A-10 tank buster planes to Europe, increased the amount of heavy armour it mothballs in forward positions, and this week announced it will deploy a squadron of F-22 Raptor jets to the continent.
These war games and manoeuvres do not mean that a major war is coming, but they are further proof of, as argued previously in the W&Y, that the New Cold War is underway. Each side argues that the other is being aggressive, and each side maintains its own preparations are not hostile but defensive. The military exercises are chosen carefully for location, units used, and mission aims – all send messages to the other side.
Both NATO and the CSTO will be holding more large scale exercises later this year.