Russia’s aggressive war games threaten NATO borders

The Russo-Belarusian 2013 military exercises on the Polish border are an attempt to intimidate NATO and demonstrate the failure of “reset” policies pursued by Western governments.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna | May 2, 2013

The successors of the Soviet Union continue to view NATO as their main enemy.

On April 22-24 the Russians and their Belarussian junior allies conducted war games right on the eastern border of Poland, which is also the eastern frontier of NATO. The successors of the Red Army—Russian airborne assault units and Belarussian special forces, to be more precise—rehearsed the scenario of a war with Poland on a military training ground in Brest, just across the river from the Polish-Belarussian border.

Even more provocatively, the post-Soviets are planning to conduct their “Zapad [West] 2013″ war games in September of this year, during which they allegedly intend to rehearse an invasion of the Baltic states and a “preemptive” nuclear strike against Poland’s capital, Warsaw. Of course, Moscow and Minsk deny this, claiming that they will only practice repelling a NATO attack from Poland. However, during the “Zapad 2009″ war games the post-Red-Army certainly rehearsed a nuclear attack on Warsaw and the crushing of a hypothetical uprising by the Polish minority in western Belarus (eastern Poland before the Second World War).

A week ago Russia and Belarus also announced that four squadrons of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile squadrons and Russian fighter planes will be deployed in Belarus in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Such threatening gestures come in the wake of a recent Russian mock air attack against Sweden by nuclear-capable bombers and two escorting fighters on Good Friday (March 29), which caught the Swedes completely off guard. Although not a NATO member, Sweden is a traditional geopolitical rival of Russia in the Baltic region. Thus, Stockholm has been increasingly concerned over Moscow’s growing bellicosity, particularly since the Kremlin threatened neighboring Finland back in June of 2012, warning Helsinki against joining or cooperating with NATO, especially on missile defense.

Just a month prior to intimidating the Finns, we would do well to remember that Russia’s chief of defense staff, General Nikolai Makarov, who stated menacingly that the Kremlin would resort to using “destructive force preemptively” to prevent the final stages of a NATO European missile defense system from being completed. A few months before, Russia’s former president, Dmitry Medvedev, threatened to aim Russian missiles at NATO installations.

Characteristically, the pretext for the threatening behavior and intimidating pronouncements is the “threat” of the missile shield and NATO presence in the former “near abroad.” The current saber-rattling in Belarus and over the Baltic is depicted as a response to NATO exercises rehearsing the defense of Estonia. Yet, the war games followed the Obama administration’s mid-March decision to capitulate on the implementation of the fourth phase of the missile shield. In other words, Team Obama bowed to Moscow’s pressure and chose not to fully deploy the system. Predictably, this failed to satisfy the post-Soviets—who wish to see the Americans leave Europe altogether—and only emboldened them. The post-KGB elite ruling Russia assumes that bullying pays and knows when to apply pressure.

The Moscow-led war games aimed at Poland, Sweden, and the Baltics—and therefore against NATO and the U.S.—demonstrate the failure of Obama’s “reset” and similar attempts by other NATO states, such as Poland, to appease Russia during the past several years. Russia’s leaders sneered at America’s concessions to Russia and Poland’s extreme submissiveness following the highly suspicious Smolensk Crash, interpreting these as a cue to continue pushing. Considering Russian and Soviet history, this should not come as a surprise.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.