As Russia and Belarus prep for their quadrennial fight-the-West wargame, NATO’s Baltic states are watching more than a bit nervously.
For the Baltic countries on NATO’s northeastern flank, carefully monitoring Russia’s various defense investments and activities is nothing new. Like brushing your teeth, it’s just a matter of staying healthy, Estonia’s defense minister told a small group of reporters while visiting the U.S. last week. Observing Russian military activity is that routine, “but we do it even more often,” he said.
So Margus Tsahkna and his counterparts in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania say they’re in no way unprepared for Russia’s upcoming military exercise, Zapad (“West”) 2017. The joint exercise with Belarus, which simulates a full-scale conflict with the West, happens every four years. But even so, “it’s not comfortable at all when we expect to have 100,000 troops around our borders,” Lithuanian Minister of Defence Raimundas Karoblis said during a recent visit to Washington.
Scheduled for autumn, this year’s Zapad will be the first since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Estonia’s Tsahkna said “transparency” is always a question whenever Russia conducts exercises. Several Baltic officials have warned that Russia may leave troops in Belarus after the exercise. During his own trip to the United States, Latvia’s defense minister, Raimonds Bergmanis, said his department is trying to figure out just how likely that is.
But even if those fears prove unfounded, such a large buildup is “simply destabilizing,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said while visiting Lithuania last month.
More military units in a given area raises the chance of everything from accidents to probes to deliberate provocations.
“We are treating these as exercises as such, nothing more, but of course, on the local level, some risks are here,” Karoblis said. “We need to also be prepared for surprises … they could, say, go to a different direction than planned, and there also may be some tests of how the border protection is working, etc.”
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been rapidly increasing their defense spending ever since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. But ultimately, their ability to deter Moscow depends on their European and NATO allies. Each Baltic country could mobilize several tens of thousands of troops, not the hundred thousand Russia is likely to amass for this exercise alone.
Full article: A Giant Russian Exercise Will Soon Put 100,000 Troops on NATO’s Border. Then What? (Defense One)