Armed conflict between NATO and Russia is becoming more likely, warned a new report by the London-based European Leadership Network (ELN) published today.
Ian Kerns, the director of the think tank, said that ramped-up military exercises on both sides have contributed to "a climate of mistrust" — and, on occasion, "some quite close encounters between the NATO and Russian militaries."
NATO has planned approximately 270 military exercises for this year, while Russia has announced 4,000.
On Wednesday morning, however, NATO accused ELN of "misleadingly put[ting] NATO and Russian exercises on par."
"NATO military activities are proportionate, defensive, and fully in line with our international commitments," the alliance stated in a press release. Russia, in contrast, is running "over 10 times more" military exercises this year than NATO is, and is incorporating "nuclear and nuclear capable forces" into its activities — according to NATO.
The statement stresses that "Russia's unpredictable and surprise military manoeuvres contribute to instability."
Watch the VICE News documentary, The Russians are Coming: NATO's Frontier:
In June, NATO's Allied Shield exercise mobilized some 15,000 troops from 21 countries. As part of the drill, NATO soldiers in Poland combatted enemies from the fictional state of "Bothnia" — a former democratic republic that was trying "to gain a dominant position in the region." They engaged "Bothnian" insurgents in Ukraine-style irregular warfare scenarios.
Three months earlier, Russia ran "snap exercises" involving 80,000 personnel.
In May, NATO and Russia carried out yet more rival drills: the Russians, with 12,000 troops and 250 combat plans in the Ural Mountains and Siberia, and NATO with 4,000 troops in the Arctic. The Russian drill was not unannounced beforehand. "Tanks don't need visas," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin joked, on national television.
According to the new ELN report, the increasingly expansive and routine military exercises run by each side — meant to prepare for conflict — could themselves hasten war. The paper's authors urge Russia and NATO member states to re-examine the necessity of future drills.
The report also argues that the style and location of NATO and Russian drills expose what both sides consider to be their most vulnerable territories. NATO is thought to be especially concerned about Russian influence in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. Russia is believed to be concerned about occupied Crimea, the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, and great swaths of the disputed Arctic.
The report lands as eastern Ukraine witnesses some of the most intense fighting it has seen for half a year — and military tension in Europe rises to levels unseen since the Cold War.
In September 2014, months after Russian troops invaded and seized Crimea, NATO formed the 'Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.' The 5,000-strong spearhead force will be capable of deploying within 48 hours of receiving a NATO alert.
In June, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told VICE News that that NATO was in the process of "the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War."