WASHINGTON — As troops from 24 nations convened last month in Poland for exercise Anakonda, meant to showcase NATO's unity vis-à-vis Russia, some European countries successfully worked behind the scenes to soften the symbolism of ground troops maneuvering so closely to Moscow's back yard.
While it may have been the largest exercise in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, Anakonda ultimately was not an official alliance exercise, but rather an event sponsored by Poland and the US. And while officials from both countries were pushing headquarters in Brussels to declare the drill NATO-owned, Germany was the ringleader among a handful of mostly Western European nations withholding approval, according to sources.
In the run-up to the exercise, "There were those voices in the alliance that were worried about that signature being too big," recalls now-retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove. "The political leadership of the alliance chose to keep them separate so as not to be too bellicose," he told Defense News.
Still, as Anakonda kicked off in June, Russia predictably accused all participants of being just that.
Moscow's forces themselves have staged sizable exercises since relations with the West turned sour following the internationally condemned annexation of Crimea in 2014. Many Russian drills were unannounced, sometimes involving upwards of 100,000 forces, and their suddenness made Western officials nervous.
Some NATO officials, as well as defense analysts, have said the troubling thing about Russia's prolific snap drills is that they could be used to amass troops along Europe's Eastern borders, under the guise of an exercise, in order to carry out a take-over of a Baltic nation, Crimea-style.
During Anakonda, US Army Europe Commander Gen. Ben Hodges downplayed the exercise's size. At roughly 30,000 troops, he said the forces involved wouldn't even fill one-third of a European soccer stadium.
But for some officials in other European counties, that force size still was deemed to be too big.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, prior to Anakonda said NATO was "warmongering" against Russia and that the Polish military exercise was "sabre-rattling."
Such statements show a difference of opinion between countries within the NATO alliance about how far the West should go militarily in trying to show Moscow where red lines lie when it comes to protecting former Soviet Union states.
"This goes back to the question of what is provocation and what is deterrence," Lisa Sawyer Samp, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Defense News.
There is a portion of NATO, she said, "that thinks that what we have been doing is poking the bear unnecessarily and that the Poles are the tip of the spear when it comes to poking the bear, so with the NATO flag on a Polish exercise that some consider unnecessarily large or close to the [NATO] summit or practicing lethal drills, cutting the ribbon on missile defense, there are things the Poles wanted that NATO doesn't have a consensus on."
In a report released by CSIS just prior to the recent NATO Summit in Warsaw, analysts working at the behest of US Army Europe highlighted the problem in defining "credible deterrence" and "escalatory provocation."
The debate over this, they say, continues "to be a constraining factor within the alliance when deciding future US and NATO force posture arrangements."
The report says while it's important to recognize the dangers of "accidental escalation, one can also err in being too cautious."
Moreover, Russia can be expected to cry foul at anything NATO or any of its allies do, making appeasement impossible, the thinking goes.
"It's hard to say exactly when I look at what causes a reaction from Mr. Putin and what does not," Rachel Ellehuus, the principal director for Europe and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said at a House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing July 13. "It seems like we can try to get into his mind and get at what is an excuse for provocation but I don't think he necessarily needs one."
Pointing to Baltic Operations 2016, a naval exercise with about 6,100 soldiers that has happened for decades and where Russia has been invited to participate in the past, Ellehuus said: Putin "griped more about BaltOps" than he did about Anakonda.
But efforts to avoid Russia accusing NATO countries of being provocative "at all costs has led to micromanagement of decisions typically delegated to lower-level commanders, including logistics . . . and exercise planning," the CSIS report states. "This situation creates the worst of all possible outcomes: strong deterrence rhetoric but diminished credibility and operational capability."
One of the measures agreed at the Warsaw summit was for the alliance to station highly ready units in the three Baltic nations.
Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council lamented that the largest exercise since the end of the Cold War for NATO was Trident Juncture, which took place not in Central Europe, but Spain and Portugal.
"That will have to change if NATO is going to be able to reinforce its Baltic deployments," Brzezinski said. "It will need to undertake division and brigade-level exercises in Poland and the Baltics to test, refine and demonstrate its ability to reinforce those forward based units."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News.