Just exercising.

Photographer: Sergey Venyavsky/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's Offensive Defense

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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What were Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization up to when they conducted large-scale military exercises over the past year? A report published Wednesday ignores bland official explanations and concludes, based on what moved where during the two maneuvers, that each was preparing for invasion by the other.

Cool War

That shouldn't be too alarming: practicing for a contingency doesn't mean it is either planned or inevitable. Yet the risk of escalation is real.

Russian exercise in March, involving 80,000 troops, 65 ships and 220 aircraft, practiced a response to how Russia believes NATO might attack: from the Arctic to the Pacific, with Crimea, the exposed enclave of Kaliningrad, and Russia's border with Estonia and Latvia between.

Source: European Leadership Network

NATO's Allied Shield operation in June was much smaller, involving 15,000 personnel. It rehearsed quickly moving troops and equipment eastward to counter any Crimea-style hybrid attack on the Baltic States or Poland. The European Leadership Network, the think tank that wrote the report, produced a series of slides for each exercise, showing how each progressed.

Source: European Leadership Network

Both exercises may have been defensive in nature. But NATO could reasonably assume that Russia felt the need to rehearse for a possible conflict precisely because it was considering an attack on Estonia that might trigger a military response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, fears a Ukrainian-style popular revolt in Russia. He may genuinely see popular unrest as weapon wielded by the U.S. against Russia, and as a precursor to NATO intervention (no matter how wrong that is). Offense and defense can be a matter of perception, as Nikita Khrushchev wrote to John F. Kennedy in his October 1962 letter ending the Cuban missile crisis: "We have supplied the defensive means [to Cuba] which you describe as offensive means."

The European Leadership Network recommends that the two sides should create clearer channels of communication, and scale back exercises, to reduce the risks. That has to be right. "The problem is in the dynamic you create," ELN director Ian Kearns told me. "Everything you do draws a reaction."

More ambitiously, the report says NATO and Russia should start trying to lay the groundwork for a new deal on the lines of the defunct 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which would regulate what each military can keep where and ensure a framework for verification for the two sides.

That's probably unachievable. The European conventional forces treaty was troubled enough. Negotiated at the end of the Cold War, it took effect only after the Warsaw Pact had disappeared. In April, the treaty collapsed, with Russia pulling out of its final vestiges. The reason for the treaty's failure was that there was no common understanding in the post-Cold-War world on where the front line between NATO and Russia lies, and therefore where a certain disposition of troops and tanks would be offensive or defensive. Russia's ex-Soviet neighbors now constitute a gray zone between Russia and NATO, making it virtually impossible to agree on where weapons should be permitted.

This is what doomed an effort to reconfigure the conventional forces treaty in 1999. NATO never ratified the new document because it wanted Russia first to remove troops stationed from territories it had helped pro-Russian separatists carve out of Moldova and Georgia, two sovereign neighbors. As far as Russia was concerned, it had a right to keep the troops where they were, because the local leadership wanted them for defensive purposes. NATO saw the Russian forces as an aggressive and illegal occupying force, used to destabilize Moldova and Georgia. There was no way to reconcile the two positions.

Any effort to negotiate a new treaty on the disposition of forces would run into even more trouble today. Russia now keeps tens of thousands of troops in Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine, and claims the right to station nuclear weapons on the peninsula. It's hard to see how NATO could accept any part of that. In eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, Russia has large quantities of troops and equipment fighting a hot war, while denying they're even present.

If we are seeing the start of a new Cold War, it will be different from the last one. But as in the 1940s to 1960s, when the zones of control and rules of engagement were not yet settled, it is the early stages of a standoff between nuclear powers that are the most dangerous. It may be a while before détente-style treaties become possible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Jonathan I Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net