Russia is preparing to kick off its wargame exercises – just as east-west relations are at their most strained since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Zapad, held Sept. 14-20, comes almost three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They also come shortly after the U.S. imposed new sanctions over Moscow’s alleged interference in its presidential election. And Russia’s flexing of its military might is not confined to Zapad (which means “west”): Moscow has been strengthening its presence in the region for some time, spurring a tit-for-tat that is rapidly accelerating tensions.

The political message delivered by the Zapad drills and also Russia’s increased naval presence in Europe is clearly “hands off Russian interests,” in the words of Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a Kremlin advisory group. “But there is absolutely no willingness to escalate anything.”

But not all sides agree.

Military stand off

Most recently, and in a bid to boost permanent presence in the area, Russia sent two large newly-upgraded submarines to reinforce its naval presence in the Mediterranean. Russia has also deployed warships, submarines and aircraft carriers to other parts of the region.

It’s an undisputed show of force, said Geoffrey Van Orden, Conservative defence spokesman and a former senior British military officer.

“Through hybrid warfare, Russia has expanded its physical territory with the annexation of Crimea, restoring control of major naval bases in the Black Sea,” he said. Such enhanced Black Sea capabilities are coupled with the creation of large scale military infrastructure across Crimea aimed to combat air and surface threats in the region.

“And In the Atlantic,, [where] Russia now has six major military bases and specialized naval capabilities including 40 ice breaker ships, once more we are seeing Russian strategic submarines with similar intensity to Cold War days,” Van Orden added.

Lithuania, which borders Belarus and Russia’s semi-exclave on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad, is particularly wary. Moscow deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad last year and will send fighter-bomber jets and naval ships by the end of this year. It’s response was to reinforce its Kaliningrad border with a 6-foot-high fence alongside the Ramoniškiai border crossing. Built with NATO funds, the barrier will sit opposite a barbed-wire fence (built by Russia) five years ago. Belarus is also anxious, fearing Russian troops taking part in Zapad on its territory could remain there at the end of the exercise.

In fact, the Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania — have all been sounding alarms about Russian action in the region for some time. NATO, by way of response, has deployed four battalion-size battle groups to the Baltic states as well as Poland already this year. This comes as Russian and NATO aircraft regularly engage each other in the skies over the Baltics and Eastern Europe — at times coming within feet of each other during fly-bys.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this year, the defense bloc is seeing increased Russian military activity “on land, at sea, and in the air.”

Officials out of NATO headquarters in Brussels say there are no plans to respond to Russian maneuvers by deploying more troops along the Russian border. Its own biggest exercise this year, Trident Javelin 17, running from Nov. 8-17, would involve only 3,000 troops. That will prepare for next year’s bigger exercise, Trident Juncture 2018, which will involve an estimated 35,000 troops.

“Recognizing the indivisibility of allied security, we continue to closely monitor the situation in these regions,” said a NATO official.

In 2016, RAND Corp. conducted war games of its own to test NATO’s ability to protect the Eastern flank. It concluded that Russian forces could reach the outskirts of the Estonian and Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, within 60 hours and said a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades, at an annual cost of about $2.7 billion, was necessary to repel such a threat.

NATO has four standing maritime groups that conduct “situational awareness” on a regular basis. Ships under NATO command also participate in exercises, which contributes to European navies’ abilities to work together in “challenging conditions.”

For example, in June and July, it conducted Dynamic Mongoose, an anti-submarine warfare exercise off the coast of Iceland. The exercise included 16 ships and submarines and eight maritime patrol aircraft from ten NATO nations. Several other maritime exercises are coming up later in the year and allies are also undertaking national and multilateral exercises, such as the Bulgarian exercise Breeze in the Black Sea. NATO concluded another maritime operation – Sea Guardian – Aug. 20, and has other ongoing activities in the Aegean Sea which have been helping Greece, Turkey and the EU tackle the migration crisis in the region.

“NATO is a strong deterrent but over the last couple of years alone, Russia has illegally annexed Crimea and continues its aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine,” the NATO official said. “Russian troops remain in Moldova and Georgia, against the will of their governments. NATO has a responsibility to ensure we are ready to defend our allies….We do not keep statistics on Russian activity but these developments have resulted in increased unpredictability.”

In the maritime domain, as elsewhere, the alliance “will be ready to deter and defend against any potential threats, including against sea lines of communication and maritime approaches of NATO territory.”

“In this context, we will further strengthen our maritime posture and comprehensive situational awareness,” says NATO.

‘Poking the bear’

NATO’s deterrance efforts are viewed differently in Russia, where defense leaders interpret them to be no less aggressive than tactics coming out of Moscow.

In an interview with Defense News, Russia’s ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko described the military-political situation in Europe as “seriously deteriorating,” due in part to the military buildup efforts of NATO.

“By military means NATO is deepening existing dividing lines in Europe. And this is happening at a time when it’s necessary to unite efforts on a truly collective basis to neutralize common threats and challenges,” Grushko said.

“NATO officials keep on saying that these measures are not a provocation, but a ‘defensive reaction’ to changes in the security environment. But no matter how NATO members verbally camouflage their actions the fact is that the forces and assets of the leading NATO countries (militarily speaking) have appeared where they have never been before.”

From June to November, NATO allies will organize more than 15 maneuvers in Eastern Europe and the same number in the Black Sea region with the involvement of over 40,000 personnel, all of which are mutually complimentary, conducted in a common operational environment and aimed at working out a wide range of deterrence tasks.

And those efforts are sending a clear message to Russia, considering NATO’s enhanced forward presence is being maintained in close proximity to Russia’s borders. It’s a message that brings with it a degree of risk.

“If NATO countries really are concerned about the unstable situation in the region, then what they need to do is to curtail their own military activities which are groundless and don’t respond to real security challenges,” Grushko said. Russia is ready for such a dialogue and joint work on the basis of equality and mutual respect of interests.”

As for Zapad 2017, a July NATO-Russia Council meeting communicated the goals of the drills, the training ranges where the exercises will be held, the deployment of troops as well as the main kinds of military hardware to be used.

The hope was that such transparency “will help stop the demonization of the training practices of the Russian armed forces,” Grushko said; if not, the transparency could be devalued.

But his attempted reassurances do little to allay the fears of people like Denis MacShane, a Europe minister under Tony Blair in the 1990s, who said “Russia has done more invading, occupying and colonizing of neighboring European countries than any other European power in history.”

“Today, sadly, Russia seems incapable of living behind its own borders. It has invaded Georgia and installed puppet regimes in two regimes of Georgia. Its Anschluss with Crimea was as open a breach of international law as any in recent history,” MacShane continued. “In Western Europe which never knew Russian domination between the annexation of the Baltic states in 1940 and the end of Russian communism in 1990 the menace was seen far way. In Poland, Ukraine, Estonia it is real.”

Not all defense experts in Brussels agree however.

Giles Merritt, director of the Security and Defence Agenda, is as critical of NATO as Russia, pointing to the south, in Africa, as Europe’s chief security concern. ` While what he describes as Putin’s “adventurism” is cause for concern, it is not cause for alarm – chiefly designed to appeal to public opinion in Russia.

Further comment comes from Bill Etheridge, a U.K. Independence Party MEP and its defense spokesman, described Russia as a potential strategic threat, but also pointed the improtance of cooperation in certain areas of common interest, notably the fight against ISIS.

As Ethridge put it: “EU’s constant poking of the Russian bear is wildly counterproductive.”

Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.

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