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Russia’s war games strike fear into its neighbours

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It says much about Russia’s international reputation that Moscow felt compelled last week to pledge it would not use military exercises in western Russia, Belarus and Kaliningrad this month as cover to invade one of its neighbours. It has only itself to blame for such distrust. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia followed war games in the Caucasus, even if the exercises were formally over and troops packing up. A “snap” exercise in 2014 was used to launch its annexation of Crimea. What other European country has marched across two borders in the past 10 years?

If Russia’s European partners dispute its claims that the Zapad 2017 exercises will involve only 12,700 troops, this is again Moscow’s fault. It has in the past skirted around commitments in the so-called Vienna Document — which oblige it to invite large numbers of foreign observers to drills involving more than 13,000 personnel — by running multiple, nominally separate, manoeuvres in parallel.

There are good grounds to suspect the drills starting on September 14 will be much bigger than Moscow has said; indeed, that they could be the biggest in Europe since the cold war. Similar exercises in the past three years in Russia’s eastern, central and Caucasus military districts have each topped 100,000. The last Zapad, or western district, exercises and associated drills in 2013 involved an estimated 75,000 people — six times what Russia claimed. The scope of preparations to date suggests this year’s version could be at least as big.

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Despite Russia’s history, and neighbours’ jitters, there is less reason to think the coming war games are designed to mask the launch of a new military incursion. Russia has not been carrying out the necessary propaganda or information warfare to create a pretext for armed intervention. Russian president Vladimir Putin might, in theory, benefit from a “small, victorious war”, six months before he must face elections. In practice, a conflict in north-east Europe is unlikely to be small, or containable, and would carry extraordinary risk.

Even without such adventures, Russia’s exercises can still serve to intimidate neighbours such as Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states. They aim to highlight the modernisation of Russia’s armed forces over the past decade, and demonstrate their readiness to confront Nato if need be. They may also be designed to send a none-too-subtle message to Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator who has occasionally tacked towards the west.

All this still creates considerable concern for western capitals. Nato has increased its forces in eastern Europe since the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Having large militaries in proximity to one another always creates risks.

Russia has the right, like any other nation, to conduct drills on its territory and that of willing allies. But it should abide in full with the Vienna Document. It should avoid dangerously provocative actions along the lines of its airborne probing of Nato borders or “buzzing” of western planes and ships in recent years.

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For the entire period around the exercises, western capitals need to be alert for mishaps or provocations that could lead to dangerous escalation, and carefully gauge their response. Longer-term, they should support Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s moves to close loopholes in the Vienna Document that Moscow is exploiting. All sides should also seek to strengthen military-to-military contacts between Russia and Nato. In today’s febrile security environment, developing communications channels and fostering trust is more vital than ever.

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/c434af6e-8f2a-11e7-a352-e46f43c5825d

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