Poland and the Baltic states are hosting the largest strategic war games the defense alliance has held in ten years. The drill, code-named Steadfast Jazz 2013, began on Saturday and will wrap up on November 9.
The NATO Response Force will practice defending the Baltics from an unidentified foreign invader.
The exercise gathers some 6,000 troops from all NATO members as well as non-member states – Finland, Sweden and Ukraine. Around half of them will participate in live exercise training, which will involve dozens of armor, aircraft and naval vehicles. The other half of the personnel are headquarters staff, who will take part in command and control drills.
The week-long war games are designed “to make sure that our rapid-reaction force, the NATO Response Force (NRF), is ready to defend any ally, deploy anywhere and deal with any threat,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Around 350 vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, engineering vehicles, trucks and all-wheel drive vehicles, 1,000 mechanized infantries, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) battalion, an airborne anti-tank company, around 11 surface vessels and one submarine as well as 46 fighter jets and 11 helicopters are participating in the war games.
Eastern European members of NATO have been seeking to host large-scale alliance drills for years, and ‘Steadfast Jazz’ is the largest since 2006. The scenario of the games involve an unidentified foreign nation invading Estonia over a territorial dispute, and the alliance deploying its rapid-response force to fend off the aggressor.
While the name of the invading force is not stated, geography and global politics leave little doubt. For several years there was a rising concern in the three Baltic states over a perceived threat from Russia, which, according to some alarmists, could move its troops and occupy the region, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, in a matter of days or even hours. The big drill is partially meant to reassure the weary NATO members that the alliance is ready to protect them.
“Russia as a country in the last five years has been increasing its assertiveness in the Baltic,” Latvian defense minister, Artis Pabriks, told Reuters. “‘Steadfast Jazz’ is important to us as these are the first exercises where we really train to defend our territory.”
The latest peak of concern in the Baltic came in September during the Zapad annual joint military exercise held by Russia and Belarus. Prior to the drill, some media in the Baltics claimed that they were training for a potential invasion.
Russia and NATO, partners in some areas like counter-terrorism, have their unresolved disputes. Arguably the most painful is the alliance’s plan to deploy an American anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe. Moscow sees the plan as a threat to its national security, since it may undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrence.
Despite years of effort to find a compromise, Russia’s concerns over the ABM shield have not been addressed. In the latest anti-missile move, the US and Romania this week have begun revamping a military base in the eastern European country, which will host some elements of the system.
Russia’s latest military build-up move is the planned deployment of additional S-300 air defense batteries in Belarus. The two countries have joint integrated strategic air defense system guarding their borders.
The tension, however, is far from the antagonism of the Cold War. NATO representatives attended the Zapad drill, while Russia sent its observers for the ‘Steadfast Jazz’ exercise.
Last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that his country would dispatch a delegation to Steadfast Jazz 2013 military exercise.Russian President Vladimir Putin has long complained about NATO’s eastward expansion into Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence, particularly the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
In late July, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov censured what he termed as the “Cold War” spirit of the NATO exercise.