Tag: Sweden

As Russia threatens, Sweden ponders joining NATO

Vladimir Putin’s mock attacks on Scandinavia could make the Swedes end 200 years of neutrality

SWEDEN’S Aurora-17 drill, which continues until the end of September, is the biggest war game that the supposedly neutral country has carried out for 23 years. Not only does it involve 19,000 of Sweden’s armed forces (about half of them), including its Home Guard, but also more than 1,500 troops from Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, France, Norway and America.

All except Finland are members of NATO, the big western alliance.

The size of the exercise and its main focus, the defence of Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea some 350km (220 miles) from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, is a reflection of how insecure Sweden feels.

Vladimir Putin, having gobbled up Crimea and attacked Ukraine, is flexing his muscles near the Baltics and Scandinavia. Russia’s massive Zapad-17 military exercise, which finished this week, involved sending 100,000 troops to Belarus and the Baltic to practise repelling the “Western Coalition”.

Foreign observers were banned, as they never are from NATO exercises. (Perhaps luckily: a Russian helicopter reportedly fired missiles at spectators by mistake, though the government denies this.)

There have been plenty of other causes for disquiet. In March 2013 Russia sent two Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers, escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters, across the Gulf of Finland to within 40km of Gotland.

Su-27UB , Su-27P and Tupolev Tu-22M3

The planes only veered off after carrying out what NATO analysts believed was a dummy nuclear attack on targets in Sweden. After many years of static or declining defence spending, Sweden had to rely on Danish F-16s, part of NATO’s Baltic air-policing operation, to respond.

In 2014 a Russian submarine penetrated the Stockholm archipelago, departing without being found. Since then Russia has stepped up the frequency of menacing, no-notice military drills in the region.

Small wonder many Swedes think they should end 200 years of neutrality by joining NATO. If they did, any Russian attack on Sweden would be treated as an attack on America and its 28 NATO allies.

All the main Swedish opposition parties want to join, apart from the ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats, who like many European populists have a curious fondness for Mr Putin.

Polls suggest that a plurality of Swedes favour NATO membership. A Pew survey earlier this year found 47% in support of membership and 39% against.

But for now the Social Democratic-Green coalition government, in office since 2014, wants to get as close as possible to NATO without actually joining it.

Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, is the author of a policy that tries to square the contradictions in the country’s security policy.

Part of the “Hultqvist doctrine”, as it is known, is to improve Sweden’s neglected capacity for self-defence. Military spending is rising—by about 5% annually in real terms over the next three years—and conscription is being reintroduced next year.

Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister

The other part is building closer defence co-operation with its non-NATO neighbour, Finland, as well as with America and Baltic littoral states in NATO. All of which Aurora-17 is meant to demonstrate.

Both Sweden and Finland also entered into a “host country support agreement” with NATO, which allows alliance forces to move through their territory and pre-position kit by invitation.

Mr Hultqvist himself is suspected of hankering after NATO membership. But for now the government has ruled it out. There is still a good deal of anti-Americanism on the Swedish left (which Donald Trump does little to dispel).

There is also a fear, expressed by the foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, of provoking Mr Putin (who has promised to “eliminate the threat” were Sweden to join NATO). Many observers doubt that Finland, where popular support for NATO is lower, would be ready to make a joint decision in favour of membership—something Swedish NATO boosters see as crucial.

There are good reasons why NATO itself might be keen for Sweden (and Finland) to join its fold. Defence of its Baltic members would be much harder without guaranteed access to Swedish ground and airspace. As a member, Sweden would be far more integrated with NATO’s command-and-control systems. Interoperability of its forces with those of the alliance would improve, making them more effective in a fight.

Sweden’s NATO question is being fudged for now, but it will loom large in next year’s general election. If the Swedes do eventually make the jump, Mr Putin will have only himself to blame.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “A funny kind of neutrality”

 

Danish sailor dies aboard HDMS Absalon during Baltic Sea drill

HDMS Absalon (L 16)

A Royal Danish Navy able seaman died in an accident aboard support ship HDMS Absalon on Monday, September 18.

According to the Danish defense forces command, the sailor sustained a severe head injury while the ship was at sea, taking part in an international drill in the Baltic Sea.

The ship called for a rescue helicopter immediately and rendered first aid to the sailor, the command said. All efforts to save the sailor were unsuccessful as the doctor pronounced the sailor dead upon arriving aboard the ship.

At the time of the incident, HDMS Absalon was northeast of Bornholm, where ship and crew participated in the Sweden-hosted exercise Northern Coasts. The international drill is set to conclude on September 21.

HDMS Absalon is one of the two largest Danish Navy ships designed for command and support roles. The ship was launched in 2005 and commissioned in 2007.

 

 

Northern Coasts 2017: Over 50 vessels underway off Sweden

Norwegian Navy SNMG1 flagship HNoMS Otto Sverdrup (F312)

Over 50 vessels and 20 aircraft were at sea off the coast of Sweden taking part in the international exercise Northern Coasts which started on September 8.

NOCO 2017 is an exercise that focuses on increasing the navies’ ability to operate together during war and crisis management situations.

The exercise runs through September 21 and is based on a fictitious high-intensity conflict scenario, within the framework of an international force with UN mandate.

Countries taking part in the drill include Belgium, Denmark (with command and support ship HDMS Absalon and frigate HDMS Niels Juel, Germany (with frigate FGS Bayern, mine countermeasure ships Pegnitz, Siegburg and Sulzbach-Rosenberg, and tender Elbe, Estonia, Finland (with minelayer Uusimaa), France, Canada, Croatia, Latvia (with minelayer Virsaitis), Lithuania, the Netherlands (with frigates Tromp and Evertsen), Norway (with SNMG1 flagship HNoMS Otto Sverdrup, two Skjold-class corvettes and minesweeper Hinnøy) Poland (with frigate Generał Kazimierz Pułaski and corvette Kaszub), Portugal, Sweden (with patrol ship Carlskrona, stealth-corvettes Karlstad und Härnösund), Spain and the USA.

Polish Navy frigate ORP Generał Kazimierz Pułaski

“The Baltic Sea Region is of major strategic importance for NATO. The region includes six Allied nations and two important NATO partners in addition to Russia,” said Flag Commander Petter Kammerhuber, who leads the NATO Force SNMG1 this fall.

In addition to providing an opportunity for all participants to hone their interoperability, Northern Coasts will test the initial operational capability (IOC) of the Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group. The two countries spent the past couple years preparing to achieve IOC in 2017.

Now in its tenth edition, the German-organized exercise Northern Coasts has a different host country every year. The previous two editions of the exercise were hosted by Germany in 2015 and Denmark in 2016.

 

Estonian Defence Minister discusses Baltic Security in Stockholm

Estonian Minister of Defense Juri Luik

Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik acknowledged Sweden’s Baltic defense contribution during his visit to Stockholm.

“The exercise Aurora 17 as well as developments in Sweden’s defense area show that Sweden is clearly sensing a bigger role in assuring the security of the Baltic Sea region,” Luik was quoted by spokespeople as saying.

Luik met with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist and commander of the Swedish Armed Forces Gen. Micael Byden on Friday. The defense ministers discussed the security situation in the Baltic Sea region and the Aurora exercise as well as the ongoing Russia-Belarus large-scale exercise Zapad.

Aurora 17 is the first bigger exercise of the Swedish Armed Forces as of the start of 1990s. The exercise will take place on Gotland as well as around Stockholm and Göteborg. A platoon of the Saaremaa district of the Estonian volunteer corps Kaitseliit (Defense League) will take part in the exercise with the diver and support vessel Wambola.

ENS Wambola (A-433) sister-ship – ENS Tasuja (A-432)

The ministers also discussed bilateral cooperation in the area of defense.

Hultqvist gave an overview of the decision made by the Swedish government to increase defense spending in the next three years. The government is to allocate additional funds worth 8.1 billion Swedish kronor (about 850 million euros) to strengthen the country’s Armed Forces. In addition, Sweden will restore conscript service as of the start of 2018.

Luik also met with ambassadors of EU and NATO member states who reside in Sweden to give an overview of the recent meeting of EU defense ministers that took place in Tallinn as well as of the latest developments in European defense cooperation. Luik said that EU defense ministers affirmed readiness for stronger cooperation in the area of defense, adding that it is hoped that the EU permanent structured cooperation mechanism (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund would be launched already at the end of this year.

According to secretary general of Sweden’s Ministry of Defense Jan Salestrand, Sweden supports stronger defense cooperation in Europe, adding that it should not duplicate NATO’s activities.

 

Sweden holds military exercise, practising ground, anti-aircraft and naval defense

The RBS-15 (Robotsystem 15) is a long-range fire-and-forget surface-to-surface and air-to-surface, anti-ship missile

Russian troops involved in West 2017 military drills will leave Belarus by October, as the maneuvers should be over by September 20.

In the meantime, Ukraine hosts international exercise Rapid Trident. 2,500 servicemen from the U.S. and Ukraine are participating.

Besides, Sweden also conducts its own large-scale military exercise; 20,000 NATO servicemen and civilians play the scenario of an attack on Gotland Island, practicing ground, anti-aircraft and naval defense.

Anti-aircraft and Naval Defense is provided by the Saab RBS-15 missile system. The Swedish Navy operates the missiles from its Stockholm, Göteborg and Visby class corvettes. The Swedish coastal artillery was also equipped with RBS-15Ms, which are mounted on Scania trucks.

Four missile batteries were planned, but in the end only one battery was ever ordered serving from 1995 to 2000 when the coastal artillery was disbanded. The vehicles in the battery where then scattered. However, in November 2016 it was announced that a secret number of missile trucks had been gathered and reactivated under Navy control.

The Swedish Air Force operates the RBS-15F. The AJS 37 Viggen and the JAS 39 Gripen carry the missile, with the Viggen no longer in service.

Sweden, the non-aligned state, voices out concerns that Russia could attack from the mainland.

 

Zapad 2017: Will tensions between the West and Russia run high – What the experts say

By Andrej Matisak

Is the Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 is a reason for concern for NATO?

Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 started today. Experts are asked what the most important strategic objectives of the Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 are, especially from the Russian point of view and whether Zapad 2017 is a reason for concern for NATO.

Will tensions between the West and Russia run high during the exercise?

This is what they said:

Johan NorbergSenior Analyst at FOI (Swedish Defence Research Agency)

The main strategic objective is to train and if possible consolidate the capability to launch and wage high-intensity war fighting operations on the war-theatre level. I base this on an analysis of Russia’s strategic military exercises in 2011 – 2014 report and on (yet unpublished) work covering 2015 and 2016. The West should worry about Russia’s capability intentions, what type of wars they want to be able to fight, not that this exercise takes place in Western Russia and Belarus right now (it does once every 4 years).

Tensions are political. The military exercises are in my understanding primarily for building military capabilities. I do not expect the exercise as such to create more tension than there already is. Yes, there is a theoretical higher risk of incidents since there will probably be more reconnaissance aircraft and ships active than usual.

Michael KofmanResearch Scientist, CNA Corporation, Fellow, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center

There are three elements to this exercise. First, Russia is testing its ability to command combined arms formations and the logistics involved in moving heavy ground forces into the Baltic region. Second it is a large civil-defense drill designed to test how the military and civilian authorities would behave at a time of total war, de facto mobilization of the state for a conflict with an existential threat. In that respect it tests the National Guard and other authorities in their response to internal instability, protests and the like. Finally the exercise is important in signaling to the United States that Russia has the capability and resolve to intervene in Belarus, defend its interests, and see NATO down in a potential fight. The scenario is defensive but some elements of Russian strategy are principally offensive since they involve compelling the adversary during a crisis or conflict.

Absolutely, any time a country conducts large scale military exercises it is a time for prudent vigilance and caution on the part of neighbours. This is especially so because Russia has a mixed history of having used some announced and unannounced exercises in the past to prepare for combat operations against another state, most notably Kavkaz-2008 and the snap readiness inspection in February 2014. Tensions do run high in the context of the wider confrontation between Russia and the West, but few truly expect this exercise to be a prelude to some nefarious plan, or risky adventure. Most of the reactions among NATO members have been calm, although there is always some unfortunate panic and media sensationalism that takes place during such events.

Paal HildeAssociate Professor, Centre for Norwegian and European Security, Institute for Defence Studies/Norwegian Defence University College

A major military exercise like Zapad 2017 generally has many objectives, ranging from narrow military aims to overtly political ones. What the most important strategic objectives of Zapad 2017 are from the Russian point of view is hard to determine with certainty. There are probably several such objectives and their relative significance will likely vary among different actors. From the military perspective, the exercise will be another occasion to test new concepts, including lessons learned in Ukraine and Syria. On the more political level, to show the Russian population, notably in Kaliningrad, as well as NATO that the Russian military is able to move quickly to defend the exclave may be another objective. Russia might also want to intimidate Belarus and other neighbours. More generally, military prowess has been a key tool in Putin’s attempt to re-establish Russia’s status as a “great power” in international affairs; including in Europe and the Middle East. Showing off military force, including in highly publicised exercises, is seemingly also useful for the Putin administration in domestic political mobilisation. The massive attention Zapad 2017 has gained in both Russian and international media is in itself a sign that such exercises are a highly useful political tool.

The speculations that Zapad 2017 might be a cover for plans to invade the Baltic states or Ukraine seem to be just that – speculations. Russian officials have obviously rejected such accusations and it is hard to see what Russia would want to achieve with such a military adventure. There is thus more reason for worry regarding situations where NATO and Russian military forces come close and where accidents or unplanned and unfortunate events spin out of control. Both sides are aware of this danger and will presumably seek to maintain safe distances and quickly deescalate if necessary. The most tangible and obvious concern from the point of view of NATO is of a political nature, however. Russia has claimed that only 12 700 personnel and a small number of military equipment will be involved in the exercise, bringing it below the threshold in the Vienna Document for inviting observers. Much suggests that the total military manpower and equipment that will be involved in the series of other exercises that run in parallel with the official Zapad 2017 will be vastly larger – perhaps up to 100 000. If this is the case, Zapad 2017 will represent a blatant Russian violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Vienna Document. It will thus represent yet another setback for arms control and confidence building in Europe.

Garret MartinProfessorial Lecturer, School of International Service, Editor at Large at the European Institute, American University

This is a bit of a speculation but we can assume that Zapad 2017 might serve the following interests/objectives for Russia. First, there is the declared aim of conducting an exercise against a simulated terrorist or asymmetric threat. But, in addition to that, it is likely that Russia is also keen to display its power and in particular to emphasize its ability “to impose substantial costs on a technologically advanced adversary, i.e. the United States” (see the very good piece from War on the Rocks that covers Russian thinking – https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/what-to-expect-when-youre-expecting-zapad-2017/ ). To cite the same piece, Zapad is also a way to establish Russia’s coercive credibility.

Is Zapad 2017 a cause of concern for NATO and a possible source of tension? That may be overstating it. Apprehension sure, but tension is too strong a word. It is true that Russia staged large drills before the conflict in Georgia in 2008 and before annexing Crimea in 2014. And Russia is most likely dramatically understating the number of troops involved in Zapad 2017 (announcing 12,700 troops, which puts it just under the threshold of 13,000 by which Russia would have to invite outside observers).

But on the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to keep Zapad 2017 in perspective. Many countries conduct such exercises, and Russia has conducted many before that were not prelude to actual operations. Moreover, part of the exercises will take place well inside Belarus and from a healthy distance away from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Not to mention that it would be quite foolish for Russia to try and use the exercise as a smokescreen for an actual operation when NATO states are keeping a close eye on the region.

Konrad MuzykaEurope and CIS Armed Forces Analyst, IHS Jane’s

The overall objective of Zapad is to test how Russia, its C2 structures, armed forces units, and civil organisations will react if country went to war with NATO. Zapad has always had an anti-NATO character so it should not at all be surprising that NATO is target here.

That said, Zapad is much more than a military exercise. A significant part of country’s C2 structures, civil organisations are involved in Zapad as Moscow will want to see how they mobilise, move, develop, conduct operations in a state of war or increased emergency. The current movement of troops, readiness tests (such as the one from early September that tested readiness of the 11 ICBM regiments) likely fall under what Russia’s call a “threatening period”. This is when Moscow realises that threats are real. These threats need to be addressed by troop deployments, flexing muscles, and improving readiness. These moves are also a part of Zapad. How Russia mobilises pre-official start of Zapad will also be closely assessed by the civil-military leadership post-exercise.

In short not really. Zapad is going to be provide a great insight on the progress of the Russian Armed Forces reforms, how and how quickly it mobilises, how it seeks to deter potential adversaries. We should learn from it and how to be afraid of it.

It is very likely that aircraft will be intercepted over the Baltic Sea by both sides, NATO will deploy SIGINT and ELINT assets to take a peek into what’s going on in the Kaliningrad Oblast. I don’t expect tensions to run higher compared to what we have experienced in the past two-three years.

Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Research Scientist, CNA Corporation

In conducting these large capstone exercises, Russia has pursued both military and political aims. On the military side, Russia seeks to highlight its abilities to conduct large-scale joint operations that involve multiple branches of its armed forces and require the activation of logistics networks that include the transfer of forces from one part of the country to another. Zapad 2017 and other exercises in this series also seek to develop military cooperation between Russia and Belarus, since Belarus is Russia’s most capable military ally and serves as a critical buffer zone between Russian and NATO member states. What’s more, a NATO intervention in Belarus is seen in Russia as one of the most likely causes for a major military confrontation between Russia and the West.

On the political side, Zapad-2017 is aimed at deterring the West by highlighting Russia’s preparedness to counter any aggressive actions by NATO or its individual member states. Despite Western perceptions of Russian aggressiveness, Russia continues to feel relatively weak when compared to the United States and its allies. As a result, it seeks to highlight its capabilities to defend itself, against both a direct attack and regime change efforts. The recent Western media stories highlighting the potential size of the exercise are very helpful in Russia achieving this goal.

NATO should treat Zapad 2017 as an opportunity to study the Russian military’s strengths and weaknesses and also its defensive strategy for its Western border. I don’t see any reason for tensions to be high during the exercise, except for the misplaced concerns expressed by politicians in neighboring NATO states about the possibility of the exercise being a cover for a Russian invasion.

Statements that Russian military exercises on its borders are inevitably a precursor to foreign intervention are a prime example of selection bias. Russia conducts military exercises on its borders many times a year, usually with little notice from non-specialists. Only on two occasions have these these exercises been followed by foreign interventions, and in both cases these took place during major international crises, not as a surprise attack. Russia has repeatedly indicated that it is not interested in a forceful intervention in the Baltic, both because it has no desire to occupy hostile territory and because its leaders continue to have faith in NATO’s willingness to back its Article 5 guarantees to its Baltic member states with armed force.

Russia Launches War Games on NATO’s Eastern Flank

Russia On Thursday began major joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union’s eastern flank — a show of strength that has rattled nervous NATO members.

Named Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the manoeuvres, scheduled to last until September 20, are taking place on the territory of Moscow’s closest ally Belarus, in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad and in its frontier Pskov and Leningrad regions.

Moscow says the drills will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 battleships testing their firepower against an imaginary foe close to borders with Poland and the Baltic States.

In a statement announcing the start of the exercises Russia’s defence ministry insisted the manoeuvres are “of a strictly defensive nature and are not directed against any other state or group of countries.”

But NATO claims Russia has kept it in the dark and seems to be massively underreporting the scale of the exercises, which some of the alliance’s eastern members insist could see more than 100,000 servicemen take part.

The war games come with tensions between Russia and NATO at their highest since the Cold War due to the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine and the US-led alliance bolstering its forces in eastern Europe.

Moscow has dismissed fears over the drills — the latest in a series of annual exercises that rotate around the vast country — as fuelled by the “myth about the so-called ‘Russian threat'”.

But for NATO allies, especially jittery members such as Poland and the Baltic States which only broke free from Moscow’s grip 25 years ago, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.

“This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defences and that is why we have to be strong,” Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC last week.

Jonathan JACOBSEN, AFP

“Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity. We see a more aggressive Russia, we have to deal with that.”

– ‘Skillfully manipulates’ –

Moscow has held a stream of exercises since ties with the West plunged in 2014 over Ukraine, with the military claiming some drills included nearly 100,000 troops.

Minsk has said the games will role play a conflict with a made-up rebel region backed by neighbouring European nations. Russia says they will simulate assaults by “extremist groups” trying to carry out “terrorist attacks”.

Russian military expert Alexander Golts told AFP that Moscow “very skillfully manipulates the figures for such drills because it does not want to have to invite foreign observers”.

“Russia at every drill is working on one and the same scenario — how to deploy troops quickly,” he said.

The Kremlin has vigorously defended its right to hold exercises and has long blamed the United States for ratcheting up tensions by expanding NATO up to its borders and holding its own provocative drills.

The Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint military exercises with the US and a host of other NATO countries.

Meanwhile non-aligned Sweden has mobilised 19,000 soldiers for its biggest drills in 20 years which also include units from across Scandinavia and the US.

 

 

 

Amid Western Concerns, Belarus Says Zapad Drills Will Comply With International Agreements

Opposition supporters take part in a rally during a protest against the upcoming Russian-Belarussian Zapad-2017 military exercises, and to mark the Day of Belarussian Military Glory in Minsk, Belarus, 08 September 2017. EPA-EFE/TATYANA ZENKOVICH

MINSK — Belarus says its upcoming military maneuvers with Russia won’t violate international agreements, amid Western concerns about the war games.

The chief of the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s department for international cooperation, Major General Aleh Voinau, told journalists in Minsk on September 13 that international organizations and governments — including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and NATO member states — have been informed in a timely fashion about the Zapad (West) 2017 exercises in accordance with OSCE rules known as the Vienna Document.

Voinau said that the number of personnel, weapons, and military hardware involved in the Zapad 2017 exercises, which are set to be held in Belarus and parts of western Russia on September 14-20, will comply with the Vienna Document as well.

Under the Vienna Document, states conducting maneuvers involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other nations in advance and be open to observers.

Russia and Belarus say Zapad 2017 will involve about 12,700 troops. But Western military officials and experts say that the true numbers could be far higher, with as many as 100,000 military personnel involved.

Russia charges that Western concerns about the exercises are unfounded, saying they are “purely defensive” and pose no threat to Russia’s neighbors, NATO, or the West.

Voinau said that by September 30, all Belarusian military personnel and equipment will return to their bases and all Russian troops and equipment will leave Belarus.

Dialogue with NATO and Belarusian National Security

He also insisted that the drills will be held far from the borders with foreign countries.

Last week, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that Zapad 2017 will involve about 100,000 troops and accused Moscow of seeking to show off military might on the borders of the EU and NATO.

In an interview with the Russian Defense Ministry’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda on September 13, the commander of Russia’s Western Military District said such statements were made “without any evidence.”

“It is a defensive training and it is the final stage of the joint training of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus,” Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov said. “We conduct such events regularly in accordance with decisions made by our heads of state.”

Fallon told the BBC on September 10 that Zapad 2017 aims at “provoking” NATO and “testing” its defenses.

Speaking on September 7 in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, von der Leyen said, “It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of the capabilities and power of the Russians.”

NATO says it will send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad 2017 but has repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.

Belarus borders NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. The area in which the upcoming exercises are due to take place also includes the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.

Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have increased concerns about Moscow’s intentions in NATO nations, particularly former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact satellites of the Soviet Union.

Russia occupied and seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backs separatists whose war against Kyiv’s forces has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.

Those actions have prompted NATO to step up its defenses in the east, deploying four multinational battlegroups in the three Baltic states and Poland — totaling approximately 4,500 troops.

With reporting by Interfax

 

AURORA 17 is underway, ZAPAD 2017 Starts Tomorrow, what can we expect from these Exercises?

WHAT ARE RUSSIA’S ZAPAD WARGAMES?

Russia’s military is preparing to hold its biggest war games in several years, dubbed Zapad-2017. NATO’s eastern members are alarmed by these plans, and claim similar drills preceded clashes in Georgia and Crimea.

Tomorrow, the armies of Russia and Belarus are set to conduct joint military maneuvers, with thousands of troops taking part in war games in both countries and Russia’s heavily militarized exclave of Kaliningrad. The drill, designated Zapad-2017, comes after similar exercises were held in the region in 2013 and 2009. “Zapad” is the Russian word for “West.”

According to Moscow, some 13,000 service people are set to participate this year. However, NATO puts little faith in the estimates published by the Russian defense ministry and worries that the actual scope of the drill might be many times larger. Representatives of some NATO members, such as Estonia, believe that Russia intends to involve some 100,000 soldiers and officers in the exercise.

The number of troops is more than just a demonstration of power. According to the 2011 Vienna Document set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), any country holding military exercises involving more than 13,000 service members must invite observers to monitor at least some of the drills. Russia, a member of OSCE, agreed to these terms. However, NATO has repeatedly accused Russia of cheating by underreporting the number of participants.

Scenario: Attacked from Baltic

Representatives of NATO remain unconvinced, pointing to the Zapad-2013 drill held four years ago. In it, Russian and Belarusian forces simulated defense from armed “terrorists” moving in from the Baltic.

Moscow’s official statistics put the number of troops at around 12,000. Foreign analysts, however, estimated that between 70,000 and 90,000 soldiers took part in 2013. Even more troubling for NATO’s eastern flank, the Russian military displayed the use of new tactics and technologies, such as scouting drones, that were later used in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine and Syria. The 2013 exercise ended with a mock nuclear strike against Sweden, according to NATO.

Four years before that, Russia ended the Zapad-2009 drill with a simulated nuclear strike on Poland. The same drill saw NATO scramble German “Eurofighter” jets to intercept a Russian radar plane above Estonia. Finland, which is not a NATO member, also responded by deploying its own F-18s.

An Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force) F-18MLU2 Hornet

Drilling for war

Such border incidents are also possible with the upcoming drill in September, with NATO-Russia tensions still running high and NATO troops deployed on the alliance’s eastern flank. Russia also stirred concerns by repeatedly holding massive snap exercises in recent years. Unlike the long-scheduled Zapad drills, they require no advance notice.

NATO analysts also point out that Russia held a large exercise just ahead of its takeover of Crimea, presumably to provide distraction and cover for the move. Some 150,000 troops allegedly took part in the anti-terror drill near Ukraine’s borders in late February 2014, and remained in the area as Russia annexed the peninsula in March the same year.

In a similar scenario in July 2008, Russia conducted military drills in regions near to Georgia, including Chechnya and North Ossetia. The war between Georgian forces on one side and Russia and their Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists on the other broke out only weeks later.

In the meantime, the Swedish military has begun its largest joint military drill with Nato in 20 years over fears about the growing encroachment of Russia.

Aurora 17, started on Monday and  is designed to strengthen the country’s defences and create a “credible and visible” deterrent to make its neighbours “carefully consider the risks of attacking” it, the Swedish Armed Forces said in a statement.

It said: “The overarching mission of the Swedish Armed Forces is to defend the country’s interests, our freedom and the right to live the way of our choice.”

Dismounted Swedish soldiers clearing a valley. The weapons used are, from left to right: Ak 5C (a Swedish variant of the FN FNC), Ksp 90B (Swedish version of the FN Minimi) and an Ak 5C with a 40mm grenade launcher. Stridsfordon (Combat Vehicle) 9040C.

The exercises will take place in the air, on land and at sea. They will take place across the entire country but will focus on the Mälardalen Valley, the areas around cities of Stockholm and Gothenberg and on the strategic island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.

Around 21,150[3] total personnel from all branches of the Swedish Armed Forces, as well as troops from foreign nations will participate. One fourth of them will consist of Home Guardsmen. Civilian authorities, such as police and social services will also participate.

Several NATO nations have planned to take part in the exercise. As of January 2017, the participating nations include France, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Germany, and the United States.

The U.S. Army will participate in AURORA 17 (US Army Rangers Pictured)

The designated exercise area will cover most of Sweden, but will be focused on the Mälaren Valley, Stockholm, Gotland and in Gothenburg.

The exercise is expected to cost the Swedish government 583 million Swedish krona (approx. $65,6 million USD).

It comes after Russian president Vladimir Putin vowed to “eliminate” the Nato threat if Sweden decided to join the organisation.

In June, he told the state news agency Itar-Tass: “If Sweden joins Nato this will affect our relations in a negative way because we will consider that the infrastructure of the military bloc now approaches us from the Swedish side.

“We will interpret that as an additional threat for Russia and we will think about how to eliminate this threat.”

Currently only tiny Montenegro is on the list of countries which are due to be inducted into Nato, as the military alliance steps up its presence in eastern Europe over fears about Russian encroachment.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commanding officer of the US Army forces in Europe, said no island was as strategically important at Gotland and said he was looking forward to working with the Swedes.

He told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter: “Russia has changed the security environment.

“We have to react to that, and not just the US, but the whole of Nato. The countries closest to the bear have historical experience. They feel the hot breath of the bear – and they are the ones most worried.”

“The fact that Sweden decided that they have to put troops back on Gotland is a very clear indication of what’s going on. Sweden is known as moderate, credible and alliance free. Nevertheless Sweden felt that this was necessary.”

AURORA 17 Schedule

Monday, 11: Exercise starts.

Wednesday, 13/9: Supreme Commander will visit Gothenburg, where host nation support will be exercised with the American and French Air Defense Units.

Monday, 18/9: Air-drop, Gotland.

Swedish Fallskärmsjägarna during a static-line military para-drop

Wednesday, 20/9: Defence of Sweden, support from Finland. Hagshult Air Force Base will host Swedish and Finnish aircraft and pilots on site.

Saturday, 23/9: Land Combat, Kungsängen.

Stridsvagn 122 bataljon

Sunday, 24/9: Consequences of Conflict (Total Defense), Gotland.

Sunday 24/9: Supreme Commander will attend the Defence Information Day at Gärdet, Stockholm.

Wednesday 27/9: Coastal Defence Operation (conflict), Oxelösund.

Saab RBS-15 anti-ship missile system, Sweden

 

 

French and US troops head to Gothenburg as Sweden’s biggest military drill in 20 years kicks off

French troops are heading to Gothenburg to join their U.S. and Swedish counterparts in Exercise AURORA 17

The biggest Swedish military exercise in over 20 years has started in Gothenburg, with French and US air defence units as well as other overseas troops joining the Swedes in the Aurora 17 drill of more than 20,000 military personnel.

Taking place between September 11th and 24th, Aurora 17 involves a total of 19,000 Swedish troops, as well as 1,435 soldiers from the US, 120 from France, and other units from Finland, Denmark, Norway, Lithuania and Estonia. The exercise starts on Sweden’s west coast and will also cover the Stockholm area, Mälaren Valley and Baltic island Gotland.

The first event, practising “Host Nation Support” in Gothenburg, involves testing the “capability of receiving and providing support to other nations, an important element at a time of crisis”, according to the Swedish Armed Forces.

Starting on September 11th and running until the 20th, around 1,200 Swedish personnel as well as 200 from French and US air defence units are taking part in the first phase at Gothenburg’s Landvetter Airport, as well as the city’s harbour and Hisingen island.

The show of force comes in a period where Swedish defence is in sharp focus following an increase in military activity from Russia in the Baltic region. In June, Sweden summoned Russia’s ambassador after an SU-27 jet flew unusually close to a Swedish reconnaissance plane in international airspace above the Baltic Sea.

Sukhoi Su-27 Russian Aerospace Force, Air Superiority Fighter

Sweden’s coalition government recently agreed a new defence deal worth 2.7 billion kronor ($334 million) per year until 2020 with two of the centre-right opposition parties. Conscription has also been brought back to strengthen the number of troops available to the Swedish Armed Forces after recruitment drives failed to deliver results.

READ ALSO: New defence deal agreed in Sweden

Aurora 17 will cost Sweden around 580 million kronor, about twice as much as the Armed Forces usually spends on military exercises in an entire year, according to SVT. The Swedish Government argues that a worsening security policy situation in Europe means that Sweden’s defence capabilities and cooperation with other nations in the area need to be strengthened.

“Aurora is the biggest operation in 23 years where the army, air force and marines collaborate in a drill. The exercise is an important defence policy signal. It raises the threshold against different types of incidents and provides an important foundation for evaluating our military capabilities,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said in a statement.

Stridsvagn 122 bataljonen förberedd för AURORA 17

Sweden is not a member of Nato, but has strengthened ties with the alliance in recent years in the face of Russian warnings that an expanding Nato would be seen as a “threat”. The Nordic country has a Host Nation Support Agreement (HSNA) with Nato which means helicopters, aircraft and ships can be transported by members across Swedish territory upon Sweden’s invitation.

In July, US Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who is a commanding general of the US Army in Europe, singled out the importance of Gotland, saying “I do not think there is any island anywhere that is more important”.

READ ALSO: No island as important as Gotland, US military chief says

At the same time as Aurora 17 gets going, Russian and Belarusian forces are preparing to start their own major joint military exercise on September 14th. Zapad 2017 (“West 2017”) will start in Russian enclave Kaliningrad, then move to Belarus and finally into mainland Russia.

 

 

Russia’s Looming Military Exercise: A 21st Century Trojan Horse?

Beginning tomorrow, as many as 100,000 Russian and Belarusian troops will launch major military exercises along the border of three NATO countries.

Russia’s upcoming Zapad military exercise, which will simulate a response to an attempted overthrow of the Belarusian government by an insurgency unfriendly to Russia, has European countries and the United States on edge at a time when relations between the NATO alliance and Moscow are colder than ever.

Zapad has the potential to be the country’s largest military exercise since the Cold War – despite Russian claims that only roughly 13,000 troops will participate, Western defense officials have put forward estimates closer to 100,000. Many suspect the Russians may hold multiple, smaller, simultaneous exercises as unofficial parts of Zapad, to adhere to the letter, if not the spirit, of the official 13,000 limit.

Why 13,000? According to the Vienna document, an agreement among the nations of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe of which Russia is a member, any exercise involving more than 13,000 people – including both military and support personnel – requires that outside observers be allowed to attend. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Moscow’s offer to allow three international observers access is not sufficient.

What is of more concern than the actual numbers are NATO fears of Russian duplicity. Russia made similar assurances regarding troop numbers in 2013, ahead of the last Zapad exercise, but the number reached nearly 70,000 – and acted as a prelude to the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

So, is this Russian posturing or a true threat to NATO? According to experts, the exercises pose three major risks: potential positioning for a future attack, as in 2014; diversion for Russian activities elsewhere, such as in Syria and Ukraine; and an opportunity to signal to its Western rivals that it is once more a player on the global stage. None of these options are mutually exclusive, and all also carry the potential for miscommunication or miscalculation that leads to actual conflict.

The exercise comes at a time when the U.S. and Russia are exchanging diplomatic blows by expelling each other’s diplomats (because of the U.S. assertion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election) and subtly challenging each other across the world from Syria to Afghanistan.

Former U.S. Senior Defense Official and Military Attaché to the Russian Federation, retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack, told The Cipher Brief, “I haven’t seen this level of distrust in my experience since 1999 – Kosovo. It is built on the 2014 crisis points and exacerbated by the very ugly activities – corruption and meddling – in our own body politic.” Given that level of tension, Zwack’s main concern surrounding Zapad is “an accident or an incident in this period of really serious distrust.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s primary objective seems clear: sending an indisputable message of strength to its Western neighbors and their NATO allies. In fact, the name Zapad, which means “West” in Russian, is quite literal – Belarus shares a western border with three NATO countries: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon indicated that the message was not lost on Europe: “This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defenses, and that’s why we have to be strong,” he said. “Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity.”

UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, MP. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Indeed, the Russian First Guards Tank Army – the historic unit that fought back the German invaders in World War II along the Eastern Front and then went on to occupy Berlin during the Cold War – will participate in the exercise.

The message was certainly not lost on Russia’s eastern European neighbors either. General Jaroslaw Stróżyk, the former Polish Defense Attaché in the United States, told The Cipher Brief that “the major aim of Zapad-17 is to intimidate Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.”

Beyond messaging, the West will also be watching closely for signs that Russia may be leaving military equipment in Belarus as pre-positioning for a future attack on one of the bordering nations – making Zapad-17 a modern-day Trojan Horse.

The Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, General Tony Thomas, stated in July that “the great concern is that [the Russians] are not going to leave” Belarus after the conclusion of the exercise. “And that’s not paranoia,” he added.

Moreover, after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria, experts noted similarities between tactics used in those actions, such as the use of unmanned aerial systems, and maneuvers practiced in Zapad-13.

But that also creates an opportunity for NATO, according to Cipher Brief expert and former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Steven Hall.  “There’s going to be the entire breadth of NATO collection capabilities aimed at Zapad to try to find out what the Russians are capable of,” he told The Cipher Brief.

So what does NATO have planned during the exercise?

According to NATO officials, the alliance will “closely monitor exercise Zapad-17 but we are not planning any large exercises during Zapad-17. Our exercises are planned long in advance and are not related to the Russian exercise.”

Instead, NATO will maintain normal military rotations, while carrying out previously scheduled exercises in Sweden, Poland, and Ukraine. Sweden, which is not a NATO member but is a member of the European Union, began its Aurora 17 exercise on Monday – which consists of 20,000 people from nine Western countries, including around 1,000 U.S. Marines, training to counter a hypothetical attack by Russia.

A Swedish combat team from an armored regiment trains on the island of Gotland on Sept. 14, 2016. (Photo: Soren Andersson)

There will also be an additional six-week deployment of three companies of 120 paratroopers to each of the three Baltic countries for ‘low-level’ exercises. And, based on a 2016 agreement, four deployments of U.S., UK, German, and Canadian troops maintain an “Enhanced Forward Presence” in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia.

However, according to Zwack, NATO’s readiness needs to go beyond the military component. The alliance must be “absolutely ready” from a political and economic perspective as well, and prepared to lay down “mind-bending sanctions” if the Russians move beyond exercises to “a permanent dwell” in Belarus.

Russian adventurism, he believes, must have consequences that would put the Russian regime – and the monied interests that support that regime – at risk. It would need to be, according to Zwack, an existential threat to the controlling powers in Russia: in other words, “bad for business.”

But even if the exercise concludes without incident, the current climate is simply unsustainable, according to General Philip Breedlove, the former U.S. Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who retired in 2016.

“I would hope that cooler heads and better judgment would prevail. But we can’t live in this way,” he told The Cipher Brief, adding, “The glib saying you often hear is ‘hope is not a strategy.’”

Callie Wang is the vice president of analysis at The Cipher Brief.

Kaitlin Lavinder contributed to this report.