Last week, in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, a Russian SU-27 warplane intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in an “unsafe and unprofessional manner”, which prompted a formal diplomatic complaint by the Americans. Norway recently discovered that Russian naval vessels had been using a once-secret Norwegian base in the Arctic. Since January, the United Kingdom has experienced at least 17 displays of Russian military strength in close proximity to UK territory, the most severe of which took place on February 18th, when the RAF spotted two Russian bombers flying off the course of Cornwall. In mid-March, simulating a potential conflict with NATO, Russia launched a snap military exercise in the Arctic, involving around 45,000 servicemen, around 3,000 vehicles, more than 40 surface vessels, 15 submarines, and 110 aircraft. As this map shows, close encounters with Russian forces are now common. Since March 2014, NATO members have observed Russian aircraft operating much more assertively, with more than three times as many interceptions of Russian aircraft in 2014 than in 2013.
What does this all mean? Contrary to alarmist portrayals in certain media outlets, Russia is not on the brink of annexing Crimea-like swathes of territory in the Baltic states anytime soon. Military exercises serve an important and regular function for any state with armed forces that has potential military adversaries. Russia is no exception. To understand recent high-profile Russian military exercises, it is crucial to understand what military exercises are for. When states devote resources to equipping and training a military, it is not necessarily because they are planning to attack another state or because they fear imminent invasion. International events that would require military action are almost always events that run a very low probability of occurrence. Yet, while they are events of low-probability, their nature presupposes high-risk; during such international emergencies, the consequences of failure are great. If a military needs to be used, it had better perform well.
For Putin’s Russia, the priority of ensuring a well-performing military force has been shaping his administration from the beginning. In the late 1990s, following a decade of neglect, the once-powerful Russian military had crumbled into ruins. Its nadir was the Kursk submarine disaster of August 2000, when the cruise-missile submarine exploded and sank while on military exercise. All 118 crew members died. At the time, Putin had only been President of Russia for a few months, but his approval ratings dived dramatically. The disaster epitomised the improper training, poor maintenance, abysmal safety procedures, and political cronyism amok in the Russian military. Putin quickly made military reform his top priority. Although outside observers thought Putin would never risk upsetting the Russian military command, the President sacked the head of the Northern Fleet and his chief of staff, and replaced the military defence minister with a civilian. Over the course of the next decade, defence expenditure would increase eightfold. Nevertheless, comprehensive defence reform remained elusive and often failed to yield concrete results. Two MIG-29 crashes in 2008 grounded the whole fleet of one of Russia’s principal air-superiority fighters, and the investigation revealed that one-third of the fleet could not fly due to corrosion problems.
Whatever the paper strength of the Russian military, realities may be very different. Military exercises are the best way for Russia to realistically understand its own performance capabilities and to observe the decade-long outcome of heavy investment.
A second function of military exercises is in testing operational effectiveness on potential missions. In December of last year, Putin created the new Arctic Joint Strategic Command, a new military district on par with the other four districts in Russia’s military command structure. With the Arctic beginning to open up to oil and gas investment, and new opportunities for trade due to the thawing ice-cap, Russian strategic interests in the 21st century will clearly extend into the Arctic. Putin has also been deploying offensive and defensive weaponry in Kaliningrad, testing military projection into the Baltic Sea. These kinds of exercises require integrated command between different arms of the Russian military. They also help Russia understand the defence readiness of NATO countries, Finland and Sweden, and what kind of defence cooperation exists between these countries.
The third function is political posturing. Putin’s recent rhetoric concerned itself with possible use of nuclear weapons over Crimea and coincides with the recent sighting of Russian strategic nuclear bombers near NATO territory. This serves as a provocative way to remind other powers what Russia conceives of as vital to its national interest, and to remind NATO countries of its capabilities. It is reminiscent of the Cold War nuclear rhetoric, where language concerned with use of nuclear weapons had served to indicate which issues amongst the superpowers were non-negotiable. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy’s public insistence on potentially using nuclear weapons in Cuba let the Soviets realise the impossibility of storing nuclear weapons there.
The role of deterrence is not to solely present the clear consequence of a given action. Military exercises can further create uncertainty about a state’s intentions, making it more difficult for opposing states to predict upcoming actions. Norway’s defence minister recently stated that, to become part of Russian strategy. Since U.S. politicians regularly discuss supplying lethal military aid to Ukraine, effectively turning Ukraine into a Russo-American proxy war, Russian military exercises can be calculated as to frighten neighbouring countries with worst-case scenarios, some of which might arise in the event of the US supplying lethal military aid. Since it is difficult to predict the Russian counter-response, cautious European statesmen urge the U.S. not to undertake this step.
A final political purpose of military exercises is to signal disapproval toward the actions of other states. In the course of the last year, the U.S. has allocated almost $1 billion for military exercises and redeployments in Eastern Europe. When Russia launched its highly public military exercise in the Arctic, NATO forces were undertaking war games in the Black Sea and Baltic region involving extensive military redeployments. While these redeployments were under-reported in Western media sources, they represent an increased military presence on Russian borders. Russia argues that this violates the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations between Russia and NATO, which stipulated that, in light of NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, there would be no redeployments carried out in proximity to Russian borders. NATO retorts that the treaty governs permanent redeployments and does not include temporary exercises. For either side, military exercises proved a helpful policy tool to showcase, rather visibly, dissatisfaction over the Crimea crisis and the continuing war in Ukraine.
Increased military exercises therefore do not constitute an imminent danger to the international order. They principally indicate a country which is keen un possession of a deployable and effective military, which makes use of military exercises as part of its wider political strategy. Yet, while military exercises are no reason for political alarm, it is important to recognise the transformed geopolitical realities they effect. Russia is intent upon modernising its armed forces, by addressing 21st century strategic objectives, and hence ensuring it can effectively act against potential opponents. Whatever assumptions might have been made about cooperation between Western countries and Russia in the 1990s, those days are long gone. The relationship between Western countries and Russia will remain adversarial for some time to come. This does not imply imminent major conflict. Still, it shows that enhancing and regularly testing the military capabilities of states remain important elements of public policy in Western countries. Figures in Western governments, who find hope of the “End of History” in the 1990s, will find this renewed emphasis on the role of the military contrary to their core internationalist ideals of integration, harmonisation, cooperation and peace. Yet those ideals, while important, cannot dominate public policy. In the present adversarial climate, the military still has a important role to play in international relations, a role comprehended by Russia all too well. Once we begin to understand this, we realise that present times are not all that alarming. Military war-games have taken place before. The comfort of returning to history is that it helps provide the resources for better understanding and responding to the uncertainties of the present.
University of Oxford