Russia, NATO Drills Fan Tensions as Europe on Edge, ELN Says

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Intensified military exercises by Russia and NATO are fueling tensions in Europe that have already been heightened by the conflict in Ukraine, a research group said.

While Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization call the drills defensive, they may treat each other’s actions “as provocative and deliberate aggravation,” worsening mistrust, according to a report Wednesday by the London-based European Leadership Network. The two sides are readying in case of confrontation, it said.

The former Cold War foes have stepped up military activity, especially near the Baltic region, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year. The war in Ukraine has prompted NATO to create command units across eastern Europe, while Russia has recalibrated its military goals toward the transatlantic alliance, which it accuses of approaching its borders.

“We don’t suggest that the leadership of either side has made a decision to go to war or that a military conflict between the two is inevitable,” the ELN said. Even so, “the changed profile of exercises is a fact and it does play a role in sustaining the current climate of tensions in Europe.”

NATO and Russia should communicate better on plans to hold military drills to lessen the risk of incidents, according to the ELN. It recommended limiting exercises in border areas.

Neither Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov nor his deputy Andrei Bobrun replied to phone calls made by Bloomberg.

‘Well Ahead’

The ELN report “misleadingly puts NATO and Russian exercises on par,” Carmen Romero, the military alliance’s deputy spokeswoman, said by e-mail.

The authorities in Moscow have announced more than 4,000 drills this year, more than 10-fold NATO’s plans, and Russian exercises have also involved nuclear and nuclear-capable forces, according to Romero. NATO is “well ahead” of the ELN’s recommendations, she said.

“The scale and scope of Russia’s exercises are far beyond anything the alliance is doing and they are increasing tensions across the region,” Romero said. “Russia is deliberately avoiding military transparency and predictability.”

President Vladimir Putin last month approved Russia’s new naval doctrine that puts greater focus on the Atlantic and the Arctic to counter NATO’s activity near its borders.

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The U.S.-led alliance has tried to calm nerves of late. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that he doesn’t see an immediate threat to the alliance’s members. NATO plans to reduce by half the number of aircraft deployed for air patrols in the Baltic region, whose skies have seen a surge in Russian activity.

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