Tag: Ukraine

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”

 

Large-scale multinational Dragon-2017 military exercises begin in Poland

The large-scale Dragon-17 military exercises, in which more than 17 thousand servicemen from Poland, NATO countries, and other countries are taking part, began in Poland, Radio Poland reported.

According to the Deputy Minister of Defense of Poland Michael Dvorchik, the purpose of the exercises is to work on joint actions of Polish and foreign troops in a threatening situation.

“The scenario assumes that a neighboring country intends to gain access to resources in the territory of our country. An attempt is made to destabilize the political situation and disrupt the work of state administrative bodies and local authorities. An attempt to seize the territory is undertaken through hybrid actions,” he said.

Dvorchik noted that, although this is a hypothetical scenario, it is based on situations that have been observed recently.

“We are talking, for example, about the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea,” he said.

 

Vladimir Putin’s Would-Be Replacements Are Playing the Long Game

When it comes to Russian politics, it seems that what’s old is new again, and again, and again, and again.

Vladimir Putin has already spent almost 14 years as president — and boasts two other stints as the country’s prime minister.

But when Russians cast their votes in the presidential election six months from Monday, polls suggest Putin will almost certainly be re-elected to a fourth term running the world’s largest nation in terms of landmass.

And while the subsequent election in 2024 may seem far away, analysts say some of his opponents are under no illusions about their prospects at the ballot box this March.

“The scenarios for Putin running and losing are hard to spin. People will run against him, but nobody honestly thinks they can beat Putin,” said Olga Oliker, the director of Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They know they can’t win the election, but they can demonstrate their presence and plan for a future when winning elections becomes possible.”

Social-Media Star

While several candidates are expected to throw their hat into the ring, the one who has unnerved the Kremlin the most appears to be Alexei Navalny, a 41-year-old Russian lawyer, activist and anti-corruption blogger.

Navalny has been found guilty of embezzlement — charges he says were fabricated to deny him a slot on the ballot.

Alexei Navalny

Navalny announced his candidacy in December but the Russian Election Commission later effectively barred him from participating in the election, concluding that he committed a “serious crime” and was therefore not eligible to run for president.

While not being allowed much time on state television, Navalny uses his blog, with 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 2 million followers on Twitter, to get his message out.

Mark Galeotti, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says the Kremlin may have initially contemplated the possibility of allowing Navalny to run before deciding he was “too dangerous.”

“Giving him the kind of national platform that would allow him to become a registered candidate would be considered too risky,” Galeotti said.

In 2013, after Navalny was charged with embezzlement, the White House said it was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by the “politically motivated” ruling.

“Navalny’s harsh prison sentence is the latest example of a disturbing trend aimed at suppressing dissent in civil society in Russia,” then-White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing.

According to Galeotti, Navalny is looking beyond 2018 and is trying to grow his personal brand.

The opposition politician is also ramping up his anti-corruption efforts.

“Corruption is the absolute Achilles heel of [Putin’s] government,” Galeotti said. “Everyone knows about it and everyone resents it. It’s one of the few issues that can unite people across the board. But up to now, it has been regarded much like the Russian weather — something that’s to be endured rather than changed.”

He said Navalny would aim to convince Russians that “it is conceivable that something can be done about it.”

Galeotti added: “He is playing the long game.”

‘This Is Not a Real Election’

Putin remains very popular. One poll conducted by a Russian non-governmental research organization found that 66 percent of respondents wanted Putin to remain president after the 2018 election.

His 83 percent approval rating would be the envy of any Western leader. The number has been hovering above 80 percent since spring 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and endorsed a bloody pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine.

However, analysts have long questioned Russian approval polls.

Studies show that in authoritarian states, polls can overstate the popularity of incumbent leaders by between 5 and 20 percent because many respondents give the answers that they think are expected of them.

Pollsters have also long complained that many people refuse to speak to them — which means no one, not even the Kremlin, knows what many Russians really think about the government.

(ALEXEI DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL/EPA)

The 64-year-old Putin has not officially declared his candidacy yet, but experts suggest little should be read into that.

“This is not a real election,” Galeotti said, adding that few doubted that Putin would run and emerge victorious on March 18.

Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said Navalny and other liberal opposition leaders know Putin voters are a “lost cause.”

But Boulegue said that they “can appeal to the younger voters — those who don’t feel they recognize themselves politically in Putin’s Russia.

It’s all about the appeal and mobilizing the forces towards winning at some point when the moment will be right, but right now, the moment is not right for them.”

Galleotti says the list of candidates running against Putin is likely to include “usual suspects” like ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Sergey Mironov of the “A Just Russia” faction and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communists.

Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Vladimir Zhirinovsky

The latter finished second in the 2012 election and captured 17.2 per cent of the vote — compared to around 64 percent for Putin.

Galeotti said there is a strong youth-driven youth movement within the Communist Party made up of people who don’t align with the traditional Marxist-Leninist ideology and want to see real change.

“They are unhappy with this sort of dinosaurian Communist party elite and the way that they have allowed themselves to become house-trained,” he said.

Galeotti also predicted that several potential successors to Putin will get “road-tested” to see if they are a good fit at some point.
“Right now though, there is no one around whom Putin sees as a potential successor,” he said.

Boulegue said he expects Putin to remain in the picture of Russian politics for a very long time.

“Whether it is as a kingmaker for someone else, by controlling Russian politics from the shadows, or actually staying in the spotlight by becoming a prime minister and changing the constitution to give the prime minister all the power,” he said.

Experts see little chance of a dark-horse candidate who can give Putin a run for his money emerging between now and March.

“Absent something cataclysmic, this will be a very managed election,” Oliker said. “So no one will run who isn’t allowed to run.”

 

 

Citizens of seven EU states polled: 58% Europeans support Ukraine’s joining NATO, 48% for Ukraine’s joining EU

Some 58% Europeans support Ukraine’s joining NATO, and only 48% are for Ukraine’s joining the European Union.

This is evidenced by the findings of an opinion poll held by KANTAR PUBLIC and commissioned by Yalta European Strategy (YES).

Citizens of seven EU member states were polled within the survey – Germany, France, Italy, Lithuania, Great Britain, Poland and the Netherlands – based on a sample that was representative for each country (more than 1,000 people per country).

The findings of the public opinion poll were presented today, on the 16th of September, at the plenary session of Yes 14th Annual Meeting “Is This a New World? And What Does It Mean for Ukraine?”

Similar opinion polls, commissioned by YES, had been held in 2005 and 2007. 12 years ago, when the first poll was held, the situation was different: majority was for Ukraine’s becoming an EU member: 55% Europeans polled.

Today, the idea of Ukraine joining the EU is best supported in Lithuania and Poland (68% and 67% respectively), and least supported in the Netherlands (27%). The level of support in France, Germany and the UK is less than half of the people polled.

“Those who are against Ukraine’s joining the EU are explaining it using various reasons. One-third of the people polled believe that at this stage of development, the EU cannot afford a further enlargement. And a comparable number (31%) think that Ukraine’s accession would cause economic issues in the European Union,” the press release says.

Some 40% of those who support Ukraine’s membership believe that Ukraine is part of Europe. And 34% of the accession supporters stress that this step would boost democracy in Ukraine.

With regards to Ukraine’s joining NATO, the situation is different. In almost every country where the survey was held, most people are for accepting Ukraine as a member of the North-Atlantic Alliance.

“Even in France and the Netherlands, there are 49% people supporting this, and in other countries, the level of support is higher. In Lithuania and Poland, this number is 72% and 76% respectively,” the press service says.

The main argument for Ukraine’s integration with NATO, according to the Europeans, is its countering Russia (40% of those who support joining). Also, there are 8% who believe that Ukraine’s joining NATO will boost the ability of Europe to counter the Russian aggression.

 

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Baltic Post.

 

 

Russian Defense Ministry confident relations with NATO will be restored

NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium

Russia will restore the former format of relations with NATO, including within the Russia-NATO Council, within a couple of years, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said in an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle on Wednesday.

“We wouldn’t want that cooperation [between Russia and NATO] to remain prehistoric. We believe that there is history, and there is the present. But I am sure that very soon, there will also be a future,” he said. “And I am sure that we will restore our relationship with NATO and we will return to the wonderful form of cooperation that is the Russia-NATO Council.”

“I think that it will happen in the next year or two at most,» he added.

As for the Russia-Belarus joint military exercise Zapad-2017 (West-2017) that are to kick off on Thursday, they are of purely defense nature, he stressed.

“I can calm our dear neighbors straightaway. The exercise is absolutely peaceful, and absolutely defensive in nature. In this case, the ‘West’ isn’t to be taken in the broad, political sense of the geographic term as the countries of the West, of the European Union or the members of NATO.

The term ‘West’ designates west of the Russian Federation and of Belarus – which is even further west than Russia,” Fomin noted. “There are no plans for any sort of invasion into the territory of neighboring countries. The main goal of the exercise is to practice relevant strategies for the battle against terrorism and to practice the use of the armed forces for that battle.”

The Russia-NATO Council was established in 2002. Before 2014, it met in Brussels at least once a month at the ambassadorial level and twice a year – at the level of foreign and defense ministers and chiefs of general staffs. Over that period, it had three summit meetings. The most efficient areas of cooperation between Russia and NATO were anti-terror efforts and Afghanistan.

Russia-NATO relations lived through three periods of chills due to political crises, namely in 1999-2000 over bombing of the former Yugoslavia, in 2008-2009 over NATO’s negativism about Russia’s actions during the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict, and from 2014 to the present over developments in Ukraine.

In April 2014, NATO froze for three months all types of practical military and civil cooperation with Russia to say in June 2014 that there was no resuming strategic partnership with Russia at the moment. However, the Alliance decided to preserve the format of the Russia-NATO Council to continue political dialogue. Since then, the Council has been meeting at the ambassadorial level.

At a regular ambassadorial meeting on July 13, 2017, Moscow briefed NATO ambassadors about the forthcoming Zapad joint drills with Belarus. Following it, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he saw no threats from the drills to the NATO member countries.

 

 

Polish Arms Company PGZ Presents Main Battle Tank Upgrades at MSPO Expo.

Leopard 2PL at MSPO 2017. Image Credit: Paweł K. Malicki.

Polish Armaments Group is presenting a number of modernization proposals concerning the Leopard 2 and T-72/PT-91 main battle tanks. The ZM Bumar-Łabędy facility belonging to the PGZ Group has created two variants of modernization of the T-72 family tanks, as well as a technology demonstrator of the Leopard 2PL MBT, developed together with the Rheinmetall Defence company. Another proposal is presented by the WZM facility (Military Automotive Works), showcasing a mobile multi-spectral camouflage on the Leopard 2A5 platform.

The first of the presented proposals concerns modernization of the PT-91 (or the older T-72M1) main battle tanks up to the M2 standard, the goal of which would be to expand the combat abilities and battlefield survivability, mobility and operational capabilities and crew comfort ascribable to the said platform.

The hull modernization includes engine replacement – now an S-12U unit is used (modified W-46 engine with a power output of 850HP), coupled with a reinforced gearbox (Cx variant). The drivetrain features reinforced suspension (torsion bars, shock absorbers and elastomer bumpers), moreover the carousel-ammo supply system has also been modernized. The tank has also been retrofitted with a new ERA (modernized Erawa I/II system, being a developed concept of the Ukrainian Nozh armour), and slat armour on the back part and on the sides of the hull. The tank has also received rubberised tracks, extra 8-10 kW APU and KDN-1 reversing camera.

PT-91 (T-72M1), MSPO 2017. Image Credit: Paweł K. Malicki.

The turret itself has been fitted with the 125 mm 2A46MS cannon (which seems to be best suited for the modernized PT-91 platform), with a barrel length of 48 calibres, 902A smoke grenade dispensers and Obra-3 SSP-1 self-protection suite. To enhance the firepower and situational awareness of the crew SAVAN-15 fire control system has been used, along with TKN-3Z night vision system for the commander and PNK-72 Radomka night vision system for the driver. The tank is also going to be fitted with the PCO’s SOD 360 Degrees Observation System. The secondary ammunition storage has also been rearranged.

PT-17, on the other hand, is a development concept of the former PT-16 demonstrator. It is an in-depth modernization of the tank, with a new turret and Ukrainian KBM-2 120 mm cannon, with a barrel length of 50 calibres and composite armour. The back section of the turret features a primary ammunition storage housing 22 rounds and an automated feeder. The turret also features a panoramic observation system for the commander (VIGY-15), coupled with GOC-1 NIKE and GOD-1 IRIS optronic sensors, SSP-1 Obra-3 self-protection system, ZSMU-1276 weapon station, while the architecture of the tank is open for installation of BMS or extra datalinks and communication systems.

PT-17 Demonstrator, MSPO 2017. Image Credit: Paweł K. Malicki.

S1000R engine is the heart of the applied powerpack. The tank also features additional APU and A/C system. The driver may use the KDN-1 reversing camera, while the steering takes place with the use of a steering wheel. The tank has been developed in collaboration with the Ukrainian industry.

The Leopard 2PL demo vehicle, in comparison with the defined scope of modernization that is already known, including changes of the fire control system or enhanced armour, also received some enhancements that would improve the crew comfort and everyday use of the tank. A large case for extra equipment has been fitted onto the back side of the turret, the side-covers have a changed shape, with the rear drive wheels being exposed. New mounting points for inspection holes are less visible.

Image Credit: Paweł K. Malicki.

Meanwhile, Poznan-based Military Automotive Works facility, also belonging to the PGZ Group, is presenting a modernization proposal for the Leopard 2A5 tank, assuming that it would receive the Lubawa Group multi-spectral mobile camouflage. Utilizing this type of camouflage makes it more difficult to detect the tank using the eyesight or observation sensors, such as radar or FLIR devices. Considering the common use of thermal vision systems or UAVs that provide artillery with firing solutions, the issue of ensuring detection-safety for the armoured units is becoming more and more important.

The presented PT-91M2 modernization programme (that could be applied also in case of the older T-721 MBTs) seems to be quite realistic, within reach of the Polish industry, and also economically justifiable. Obviously, the said scope of modernization would not make the tank modern enough to compete with the new generation vehicles, nonetheless it would, at an affordable price, secure its abilities and allow for continuity in the training activities, which would make it possible to get ready for acquisition of new platforms. It is also important to introduce new, effective ammunition in parallel.

PT-17 modernization is much more expensive, and this upgrade, or some of its elements, could become a part of the PGZ’s export offer.

Leopard 2PL, in line with the adopted schedule, is to be received by the WITPIS (Military Institute of Armoured and Automotive Technology), where a comparative test programme is to take place. The vehicle will be received by the military in the third quarter of the year.

 

 

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

 

 

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.

 

Estonia to send observers to Zapad drills

TALLINN, Sep 12, BNS – Estonia is to send observers to the Belarusian-Russian joint exercise Zapad 2017, the daily Postimees writes.

Russia has decided to introduce the exercise at a training range in Luga on Sept. 17-18 to defense attaches who have been accredited in Moscow, spokesperson for the Estonian Ministry of Defense Andres Sang said.

Estonia’s defense attache will also participate in the event. Official Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) invitations for observation have not been issued.

Belarus has formally notified the OSCE that Zapad will be held in the territory of Belarus on Sept. 14-20. In addition Belarus has, under the principle of voluntariness of the Vienna document, invited two observers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Ukraine and Sweden each to take part in a program lasting from Sept.16-20.

Estonia has accepted the invitation of Belarus and will send two people to participate in the program. The Ministry of Defense does not have information on the extent of the access that the participants will have to the drills.

Additionally, the Estonian defense attache will participate in a Zapad related program to be organized by the Belarus Ministry of Defense on Sept. 19-21.