Are Russian Military Exercises a Threat? How to Interpret Russia’s Military Maneuvers in 2015

by Nathan Barrick on 4/12/2015

In a 12 April interview, Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves claimed insufficient NATO forces were located in Estonia to prevent a Russian invasion, which he said would be over in about four hours.

A year ago, the press was afire with wild predictions on who Russia’s next target after Crimea would be – this Ukrainian article claimed the next target would be Kazakhstan. The headlines this year now feature the military exercises being conducted by NATO and Russia.  The conflict in Eastern Ukraine drags on…

How should these military exercises be interpreted?  In the strategic calculus of war, it is difficult to break out of the uncertainty about threat perceptions.  Both Russia and NATO claim their exercises are intended to communicate messages to the other and to the countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.  But are the right messages being received?  Is the diplomatic language of military exercises well-understood by both sides?

I’m skeptical.

Judging threat perceptions from military “training” maneuvers carries significant risks for misjudgment because one might initiate a conflict where it could have been avoided by open communication.  It is not inappropriate to call to mind the 1962 missiles of October Cold War scenario which resulted a hotline being established between Washington DC and Moscow to ensure clear communications to avoid an accidental nuclear war.  One hopes the hotline or other established communication channels are in use to ensure U.S. and Russian leaders do not push the military exercise brinksmanship too far.


These are experienced Presidents and professional diplomats and military flag officers who are involved on both sides.  However, neither side has a good track record on understanding each other’s “red lines.” It’s possible the Russians are more responsive to strategic messaging than the U.S. appears to be.  But the truth of the matter won’t likely be known outside the privileged circles of leadership, unless something goes wrong…

In January 2015, the US News & World Report carried an article by Joshua Kucera discussing Putin’s strategic objective of a multipolar world.  This report could have prompted President Obama’s dismissal of Putin’s strategic capabilities during the State of the Union address.  But while President Obama’s matching strategic wits with President Putin isn’t exactly the same as betting against a Sicilian when death is on the line, (for those who recognize the strategic bromides in The Princess Bride), there is still the unenviable possible prospect of getting involved in a land war in Asia.

It would be best to not create a diplomatic environment where military exercises can “inadvertently” cause a war through miscommunication.  This may seem an obvious point, but it is important when trying to break out of the paranoia trap of assessing the relevant threat perceptions about Russian military maneuvers.

It is worth considering Russian military maneuvers in their own territory, even when exerted into the global commons, should not be construed as overly hostile by the United States or NATO.  However, in the current strategic environment along Russia’s European borders, no military exercise should be dismissed as benign or routine without examining the exercise and the situation critically.  Objectively, it’s important to remember the importance of geography, the context for military exercise messaging.  Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s border, or on the border of the Baltic states, are still within Russia’s territory.  But in October 2014, when elements of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division deployed to Latvia, heavy American combat forces left the United States and moved to furthest eastern part of NATO.  Although rhetoric equated the maneuvers, they are hardly the same type of military activity.

From the U.S. perspective, this demonstrated a willingness to commit to NATO and reassure the Eastern European NATO members especially about the U.S. interest in defending them from Russian aggression.  This strategic effort to bolster NATO was formally pronounced in June 2014 when President Obama’s European Reassurance Initiative was approved by Congress.  The military component of this initiative is called Operation Atlantic Resolve. “Think of Operation Atlantic Resolve as a yearlong, continuous series of exercises from Estonia to Bulgaria,” said Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe.

NATO’s exercises have been nearly continuous since Russia annexed Crimea and separatists revolted in eastern Ukraine in March and April 2014.  But, in truth, NATO has always had a robust annual exercise schedule.  The U.S. simply overlaid the strategic rhetoric about NATO and Ukraine over the planned exercises.  Unfortunately, this complicates the communication process because the Russians must now equate all previous NATO exercises as having the same intent as the current exercises, thus validating Russia’s threat perceptions about NATO.  Also, if the Russians respond to NATO exercises with any de-escalatory moves, NATO is less likely to cut short the long-planned, routine annual training exercises, which indicates the U.S. is possibly ignoring Russian willingness to de-escalate.  The U.S. and NATO risk badly mangling the strategic messaging with Russia if they are not flexible with canceling or cutting short exercises which have achieved the messaging effect.

Has this already happened?  Possibly.

Potential Messaging Miscommunication Failures

Media and NATO reports claim Russian forces are providing military assistance to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and even participating in fighting.  The United States and the European Union initiated sanctions against Russia for its role in Ukraine’s instability.  Despite a temporary truce agreed to in early September 2014 between Ukraine’s government and the rebels in Minsk, media reports, including Russian media, continued to discuss Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine (The Russians still officially deny any Russian military presence).  A massive pro-Ukraine peace march in Moscow on 21 September prompted Russia to overtly reduce support to the rebels.  In late September, NATO acknowledged significant withdrawals of Russians from Ukraine. But the United States did not adjust its own messaging to in support of the truce and Russian withdrawals.

Instead, the United States escalated its deployments near the Russian border by deploying a company of M1A2 tanks to Latvia in early OctoberExercise Combined Resolve III in October-November 2014 prepared the U.S. Army’s European Rotational Force from the 1st Cavalry Division in FT Hood to work with NATO allies and partners in Europe.  These heavy forces from the U.S.-based 1st Cavalry Division were a significant increase in combat power over the light, Europe-based airborne infantry troops who had been performing the mission.  (As a side note — According to a Turkish media source, Exercise Combined Resolve IV is scheduled for May 2015 in the Baltic States and equipment has reportedly already been shipped to Latvia.)  On 12 October, President Putin announced Russian troops deployed along Ukraine’s border would return to their bases, but the United States did not cancel the deployment of the most powerful tanks on the planet.

After the Ukrainian parliamentary elections on 26 October, President Obama called on Russia to ensure elections in eastern Ukraine scheduled for early December were held in accordance with the September agreement.  On the 31st of October Russia signed an EU-brokered energy deal with Ukraine, but still the United States did not step back nor acknowledge by actions Russia’s positive steps.

After three weeks of positive steps by Russia, the U.S. made no announcements or decisions regarding reducing U.S. armored presence on Russia’s border.  Russia did not block the separatists from holding local elections in early November and on 7 November Russian troops allegedly re-entered Ukraine.  Russia denied NATO Commander General Breedlove’s 12 November confirmation of Russian troops moving back into Ukraine. On 13 November, the U.S. sent two F-16s to Estonia.

In early December, the Russian military conducted an exercise near Kaliningrad involving the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskandar missiles.  On 9 December, the U.S. Army in Europe announced the armored forces in Latvia would be rotated back to the U.S. and replaced by the Europe-based Stryker-equipped 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in January.  The Russians then ended the December demonstration with the Iskandars the very next day, and redeployed them deeper back into Russia by the 16th.

This possible interpretation of actual events leaves open the possibility NATO is not flexible enough with its planned military exercises to rely solely on them for strategic messaging.  If NATO and the U.S. want to ensure clear communications with the Russians, they will have to pick up the phone and speak directly.

Masters of Strategy and Communications?

This isn’t about whose strategy is better – it’s about ensuring clear communication.  It appears there is a problem if we observe media reporting on the escalatory exercises.  It would be helpful to have the benefit of insider Presidential or SACEUR press releases about communication with Russia or the Russian military at the highest levels.

President Obama’s strategy – reassuring NATO allies – is the right strategy.  The Russian strategy is to undermine the NATO alliance.

Russia’s desire for a multipolar world is predicated on persuading the United States to stop acting as though the world were a unipolar one with the U.S. on top.  Moving past the strategic nuclear comparison, both sides genuinely seek to avoid a nuclear war.  Russian military thinkers assess the Russians would come off second best against the Americans in a conventional war.  The preferred strategic approach the Russians are forced to rely on is to dissolve the NATO military alliance to address the threat perceived from Europe.  There are many references supporting this strategy going back several years, including in the English version of Military Thought: A Russian Journal of Military Theory and Strategy (Voennaya Mysl), as early as 2009, (See Colonel Marx Felixovich Vakkaus, Military Thought, 18.2 (April-June 2009), “On the military-political basis of the methodology for building up and employing Russia’s Armed Forces,” and Dr. Alexei Yurevich Maruyev, Military Thought. 18.3 (July-September 2009) “Russia and the U.S.A. in confrontation: military and political aspects”).

“The only way of influencing the internal political situation [in the U.S.] is, I believe, through military strength, i.e. fear of annihilation should the United States unleash a war against Russia.”

“another method of waging war, though it is less effective … is the destruction of the enemy’s alliances.”

“If we fail to frustrate U.S. designs and break up the alliances of the US and its NATO allies, we will have to address the problem of defeating their armed forces.” 

— COL Marx Felixovich Vakkaus, Senior lecturer in the Department of Operational Art at the Military Academy of the General Staff

In January 2015, the Russian government published a new military doctrine elevating the threat perception from NATO expansion.  The new military doctrine does not indicate a major shift in perceptions; the Russians have consistently claimed NATO’s expansion eastward is a threat to Russian vital interests.

Analyzing the Russian March 2015 Exercises

The military exercise the Russians began on 16 March was a deliberate political maneuver in response to U.S. deployments of forces and exercises in the Baltics in a continuation of NATO’s Operation Atlantic Resolve.  It is possible President Putin’s early March absence may have partially been to work through responses to the U.S. deployments.  The ongoing Exercise Atlantic Resolve in Latvia started on 6 March.  On March 15th, soldiers from the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, took over from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and will operate until June, leaving their equipment in Europe to expand the “European Activity Set from heavy battalion to a heavy Brigade.” The timing of a U.S. military exercise in Latvia, followed by President Putin’s “absence”, then Putin’s return and initiating that exercise is food for contemplation.  This may mean Russia’s strategic calculus has been deliberately thought through by President Putin and his generals.

In this case, Russian statements in their national security concepts and military doctrine regarding the threat of NATO expansion towards Russia become operationalized.  U.S. and NATO military strategists must understand certain military moves by NATO on the periphery of Russia will be interpreted very negatively by the Russians.  Russia has been invaded twice in the modern era by a supposed treaty partner — by France in 1812 after the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit and by Germany in 1941 after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  Both France and Germany are members of NATO.  From the Russian perspective, an invasion by NATO is a very real concern and Western planners should not dismiss this concern as empty posturing, meaningless, or insincere.

Russia’s military exercises generate a threat perception because the military forces are assessed to be theoretically capable of attacking Europe or the United States.  From the Russian perspective, how much more would similar concerns and threat perceptions about NATO and U.S. military capabilities be considered warranted?  Unlike Russia, NATO and the United States have actually demonstrated the capability to decapitate governments and render militaries incapable of conventional operations within hours and days of starting military operations.  NATO and the U.S. have demonstrated this awesome military capability through global power projection.  In 2008, Russia failed to achieve similar effects on Georgia when launching military operations against a country with a shared border.

Russian threat perceptions about U.S. and NATO forces are completely justified on the basis of theoretical and actual military capabilities.  The U.S. and NATO must not make the mistaken judgment Russian leaders will base their threat-based decisions off stated Western values or intentions, and not off U.S. and NATO military capabilities.

The U.S. should consider including exercise cancellations or shortening if the exercise is used as a strategic message to Russia and Russia indicates positive responses.  Most importantly, Russian President Putin has demonstrated this type of flexibility in his strategic communication with the U.S. when he cancelled the Russian strategic military exercise ongoing during 9/11.  The U.S. had been attacked and Russia deliberately reduced U.S. threat perceptions by cancelling the exercise.

Was the U.S. or NATO given warning about the March 2015 Russian military exercise?  According to press reports, the mid-March Northern Fleet exercise began without warning.  There may be valid political reasons why the national and military leadership of Russia and the United States would keep such private warnings from the media.  But it would appear from media reports the Russians have developed a pattern of conducting military exercises without warning.  Given this Russian practice of communication about exercises, even surprise alerts for their own forces, the lack of warning and the lack of subsequent communication must be assessed to have a deliberate purpose.

If the exercises are a normal test of military readiness, the lack of communication with the US or NATO must be considered a dangerous oversight to be addressed through senior level communications or confidence-building measures.  However, a no-notice military exercise in the current environment – Russia under sanctions by the US and some NATO members – must be assessed to be extraordinary.

Russia has a targeted intent for these exercises.  Who is the target? The West? The Russian people? Russia’s neighbors?  All of the above.  The truth is, even if the intended audience of the military exercises was internal to Russia, the deliberate choice was made to deal with any potential “unintended” consequences from other observers “misunderstanding” the intent.  This means the message is intended, not “unintended.”  Analytically, in order to accurately assess the threat perception for the U.S and NATO regarding these exercises, the possibility of a domestic Russian audience can be ignored reductively.  In a similar spirit of reductivism, any message for Russia’s neighbors can also be ignored – at this stage of analysis, that message is not a U.S. or NATO problem.

Granted, the U.S. and/or NATO may choose to own that problem, but they will have assistance from Russia’s neighbors based on how they perceived Russia’s message.  If the military maneuvers are intended for Russia’s neighbors, Russia will very likely reach out through other channels to verify the message was interpreted correctly.  If Russia’s neighbors turn to the U.S. or NATO for assistance, U.S. and NATO leaders should remember to ask if those nations received additional communications from the Russians.  A lack of “verifying” evidence should result in U.S. and NATO receiving these entreaties with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Remembering Clausewitz’s adage about war being an extension of politics by other means can be used to interpret a message communicated through military maneuvers.  More likely than not, when attempting to communicate politically through a military maneuver it means the Russians issued a verbal (public or private) or diplomatic communication they believe was not heard, not taken seriously, ignored, or needed to be reinforced.

Prior to the mid-March 2015 Russian exercise, the last public comments from President Putin were during the visit of Italian Prime Minister Renzi.  The comments emphasized economic ties and relationships and fit within Russia’s efforts to convince Europeans to move beyond sanctions regarding Ukraine in favor of the long-term relationship with Russia.  If the military maneuvers are to be tied to these public comments (a probable assessment given Putin’s subsequent “absence” from public view) then an interpretation is simple.  The “Eastern Front” scale exercises highlight the military consequences of a broken Russian-European relationship.

More explicitly, the activation of the Northern Fleet indicates Scandinavia’s potential vulnerability and should cause NATO planners to begin assessing what a “northern war” might look like.  Most importantly, geography likely gives Russia the advantage in an air war.  As modern conflicts have demonstrated, air superiority in the region of conflict has been decisive.  If there is any isolated European area where the correlation of air forces shifts towards Russia’s favor, it is likely in the north.  Even if Russia cannot achieve air superiority in the north, it is very likely its long-range aviation assets could achieve some operational, if not strategic, level successes.  Even if NATO planners believe NATO would eventually establish air dominance over Scandinavia, the real issue is what kind of effects will Russia aviation and air defense assets have achieved.

The Western media has been flooded with Russian military invasion scenarios for Ukraine and the Baltic states.  The Russian leadership will have been very aware of this fact.  It is possible the military exercises were intended to reinforce the Western media perceptions.  I am more inclined to assess the Russians likely felt any exacerbation of Western media paranoia was an “added benefit.”  President Putin would not likely spend the resources to make a Western media story seem “more realistic.”  Heads of State tend to inculcate more agency to their actions and not rely on a flimsy connection to media messaging or hype.  Instead, the military exercises were “misdirected” away from the invasion scenarios of the Western media.

This should not be misinterpreted as a “tension reducing” or “confidence building” move, which would obviously have been better messaged by a re-deployment of deployed forces away from Ukraine or the Baltic states.  Instead it should be interpreted for what it looks like – a confrontation with NATO in the North.  The Russians likely assess the northern flank to be NATO’s most vulnerable flank militarily in comparison with where Russian forces have the most capability to project force.  The recent comments by Finland and Norway lend credence to this assessment.

Understanding the Russian perspective is not the same as agreeing with it; this has been a typical fault in United States strategic calculus with regard to the Russians.  Russian strategic perspective includes the concept of “sphere of influence,” a place of prioritized influence over other external actors.  There are regions Russia considers a vital national interest to have as a sphere of influence.  Russia has stated in pubic documents, its willingness to consider violations of its sphere of influence as a casus belli.  While U.S. leaders have denied the legitimacy of Russia’s strategic perspective, the U.S. has usually carefully managed when and how Russia’s asserted sphere of influence was “trespassed” by the United States.  The U.S. denial of the legitimacy of a Russian sphere of influence should not inform assumptions made by U.S. and NATO military planners about how Russia would respond to external forces inside those zones.

As an example, Russia’s placement of Iskandar missiles in Kaliningrad is likely a strategic effort to force NATO to reconsider the implications of “trespassing” in Russia’s sphere of influence through more intensive troop deployments or exercise activity.  The move is a direct challenge to NATO’s unity of effort.

Would Russia really risk war with the United States and NATO? 

This really reductively condenses to an estimate of Russia’s belief in the confidence NATO would act under Article 5 to defend the Baltic States, Scandinavia, or even Ukraine and Georgia in the spirit of Article 5 and in support of verbal assurances by Western leaders.  The 2008 conflict with Georgia demonstrated to the Russians the possibility to avoid conflict with NATO if Russia does not retain territory and rapidly agrees to conflict resolution intervention.  Russia likely believes it can conduct overt offensive military operations against Ukraine or Baltic states for a limited period of time.

Russia’s strategic calculus will likely be purely cost-benefit analysis and not whether it risks strategic nuclear war with the U.S. and NATO.  Russia is calculating what it could accomplish during intervention before it accepted the demands from U.S. and NATO which would avoid escalation. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea validated its strategic assessment of U.S. and NATO desire to avoid war.  The lesson of the Crimea for Russia and President Putin is that a murky enough issue, in terms of Russia’s vital national interests and former Soviet territory, raises the threshold on NATO’s Article 5 interpretations.  Russia knows there was considerable angst in NATO about extending NATO membership to the Baltic states and even to Eastern Europe for this very reason.  Russia is likely supremely confident NATO would experience an internal political crisis if forced to use military force under Article 5 for anyone east of Germany, except for Poland and Turkey.

As you wish…

The prospects of a land war in Asia… it’s probably not prudent, given history, to give too much weight to the fact we are talking about European Russia and Eastern European countries — the European aspect didn’t help Napoleon or Hitler.

The importance of clear communication… if there is not high level communication between Russia and the U.S. occurring about these military exercises, everyone should be concerned.

Most importantly, it’s probably the better part of wisdom to not attempt achieving diplomatic objectives through the use of military exercises – use actual diplomacy, there’s less likelihood of starting a war.

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This post was written by...

– author of 8 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan Barrick has consulted on Central Asia and national security issues with multiple organizations, government and corporate, including testimony before Congress. He is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer for Russia-Eurasia and has a Master's Degree from the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University. His views as published are his own and do not represent any other organizations. Follow him on Twitter @Nates_Notes

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