The Kremlin says the West is “whipping up hysteria” over its large-scale war games on Europe’s doorstep, insisting they are “normal practice.” But NATO and its allies are keeping a watchful eye.
Europe’s high-stakes LARPING season kicked off this week under a cloud of anxiety, as Russia and Sweden launched their largest military drills in years, featuring more than 33,000 troops.
On Wednesday, Sweden kicked off “Aurora,” this year’s war games featuring more than 20,000 troops. Over the next three weeks, troops will be conducting air, land and sea exercises that simulate an attack from the east. The drills — the country’s largest in 20 years — center on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, and involve 19,000 Swedish troops and about 1,500 from the United States, Norway, France, and other NATO countries. U.S. attack helicopters get to play the invaders from the east.
The operation was launched the same time that Russia is conducting its joint military exercise with Belarus. The Russian exercises — known as “Zapad,” Russian for “West” — involve armored units, ships and warplanes responding to a supposed foreign-backed armed uprising in Belarus. This is Moscow’s biggest war games drill since 2013, featuring 13,000 troops, though NATO estimates the real troop count to be significantly higher.
The weeklong maneuvers have caused alarm in neighboring countries, with Poland and Ukraine warning they could be a pretext for an invasion, and Lithuania announcing plans to fence its border.
While NATO says that Aurora is not a response to Zapad, Sweden’s top military commander acknowledged Wednesday the broad concerns about Russia’s recent behavior.
“The security situation has taken a turn for the worse,” said Micael Byden, commander of the Swedish Armed Forces.
“Russia is the country that affects security in Europe right now with its actions — the annexation of the Crimea and continued battles in eastern Ukraine — so it is clear that we are watching very closely what Russia is doing.”
Sweden is not a member of NATO but has increasingly drawn closer to the 29-member alliance amid rising security concerns, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. In response, NATO has built up its military footprint in the region, deploying four battalion-sized battlegroups — 4,530 troops in total — in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, bordering Russia or Belarus.
Sweden has also been ramping up its military power, and is reintroducing conscription, following years of military cutbacks.
Sweden has stressed that Aurora is not a NATO drill, but rather a self-defense exercise.
“We are a sovereign country that takes care of and is responsible for our safety. We do this together with others, ready to both support and receive help,” said Byden.