Putin war games take us closer to conflict
Russian troops take aim on a military exercise
The sights and sounds of Russian military exercises are intimidating and spectacular. Giant hovercrafts roar up beaches and disgorge grim-faced soldiers. Attack helicopters blast targets on the ground. Tanks hurtle across the countryside. Since the near-debacle of the Georgian war in 2008, Russia has developed a striking ability to move large formations of people and equipment quickly and efficiently over long distances.
The Zapad exercise that starts on Thursday in western Russia and Belarus will be the biggest display of Russian military might since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though much about the exercise, including the numbers involved, are still unknown, the ostensible scenario is defensive: three fictitious rogue states called Veishnoria, Vesbaria and Lubenia attack Belarus, which defends itself with Russian help.
Russia’s main aim is to hone (and show off) its tactics, logistics, and combat readiness in dealing with aggression from lightly-disguised Nato countries. But however the war games go, the Kremlin is already the clear victor on another front: the mind games that have been raging over the past year. Russia has succeeded in shaping the European security agenda, portraying itself as a strategic equal to the West, as the wronged party in a geopolitical contest, and as a genuine threat to the vulnerable frontline states of northeastern Europe.
The real picture is different. For all the divisions and distractions the West faces, Russia is no match for Nato and the European Union in any respect. Its economy is the size of California’s; its population less than France and Germany combined. Its £53 billion defence budget sounds big but nine of its western neighbours combined, none of them military heavyweights, spend nearly half that. These countries, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland and Sweden, need only defend themselves, whereas Russia has wider worries, including China and the Islamist threat to the south, and maintaining a nuclear arsenal and military space programme. The EU has in recent years rewritten the rules of the energy market to Russia’s disadvantage with almost contemptuous ease. In short, Russia may match the Soviet Union when it comes to bombast, but its real power is as flimsy as the portable villages Prince Potemkin used to impress Catherine the Great on her travels.
Nor is Russia in any position to sever ties with the West. The Soviet empire was largely self-sufficient during the Cold War. Russia is integrated into the world economy and is dependent on the western financial system. The Russian elite keeps its money and playthings in the West.
Russia is also to blame for the military stand-off in the Baltic Sea region. When Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined Nato in 2004 the western alliance took immense trouble to make sure Russia did not feel its security was threatened. Nato did not even make contingency plans to defend its new members. Nato’s military infrastructure consisted of a half-built conference centre in Poland.
Russia took this as a sign of weakness and has systematically bullied and subverted its neighbours. Estonia, now protected by a British-led contingent of 1,000 soldiers, suffered a debilitating Kremlin-sponsored cyberattack in 2007. A senior security official, Eston Kohver, was abducted to Russia in 2014 and then, in a Kafkaesque twist, jailed for crossing the border illegally. Airspace violations are routine.
The biggest turning point in western perceptions came during a previous Zapad exercise in 2009. This was six times larger than expected and shrouded in secrecy. The scenario was the invasion and occupation of a slice of Baltic territory, backed up by a nuclear strike on Warsaw. That prompted a sea-change in Nato. Belatedly, and with much grumbling from countries such as Germany, the alliance drew up contingency plans. All four countries now have multinational trip-wire forces deployed on their territory. The British-led contingent in Estonia is matched by a Canadian-led force in Latvia. Germany, in a strikingly bold move for a semi-pacifist country, is in charge in Lithuania. The US takes the lead in Poland.
These forces could not conceivably attack Russia. Indeed they would be hard-pressed, on their own, to defend their host countries in the event of a full-scale attack. They are there mainly to demonstrate western resolve in defence of our allies. If Russia turned its Zapad scenario into plans for a real war, it might succeed in occupying Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius in a day or so. But it would do so only by killing many hundreds of soldiers from a dozen or so western countries, three of which (Britain, France and the US) have nuclear weapons. The result would not be a little local difficulty: it would mean full-scale military and economic confrontation with the West, in which Russia would face overwhelming defeat.
As reality is not on Russia’s side, the Kremlin is busily trying to shape western perceptions, not least with the Zapad exercises and accompanying propaganda blitz. The theme is to behave in an intimidating way and then blame the West for over-reacting. Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, decried concerns over Zapad as “artificial buffoonery”. Western hysterics over a routine exercise masked the intensification of the Nato presence along Russia’s borders, he argued.
Yet prudent concern is entirely justified. The Kremlin has shown itself quite capable of unpredictable, risky and aggressive behaviour, while western willpower and unity have both looked a bit frayed recently.
Some fear that the real aim of Zapad is to cement Russian power in Belarus. That country is a restless ally, whose eccentric leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is barely on speaking terms with Vladimir Putin. Whenever relations with the authorities in Moscow get fraught, Mr Lukashenko flirts with the West. He has been doing so recently, not least with a unilateral decision to allow visa-free entry into his autocratic country. As there are no border controls between Belarus and Russia, that infuriated the Kremlin.
A Russian-backed coup in the capital Minsk during Zapad would be easily arranged and pose a difficult dilemma for the West. The Belarusian regime is an outcast, whose crimes range from arms-trafficking and election-rigging to the murder of opponents. We would hardly want to defend Mr Lukashenko’s right to stay in power. On the other hand, a Russian power-grab (or even land-grab) in a neighbouring country, however ill-run, sets a bad precedent.
Such fears are probably fanciful but for the frontline states Zapad is part of a deliberately nerve-rattling pattern. Russia in 2015 reconstituted the First Guards Tank Army, which in its previous incarnation spearheaded the Soviet counter-offensive against Hitler. It was also a leading part of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Now it has a starring role in Zapad. This is rather as if Britain renamed an RAF squadron the “Dambusters” in order to send a message to Germany. Russia also routinely flouts the Vienna Document that sets rules on military exercises, including advance notification and the presence of foreign military observers.
Moreover the immediate western counter to the Russian forces on display in Zapad is incomplete. Russia has the element of surprise. In both the Georgian war of 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, Russian exercises turned into the real thing. Russia has huge amounts of supplies and reserves. By contrast Nato’s slimmed-down forces have little ability to fight a serious war at short notice; the main plan is to counter-attack once US heavy reinforcements arrive, which could take six months. The Baltic states sorely lack air defences and Nato has no direct response to Russia’s battlefield nuclear weapons. Geography is against us too. In the event of an attack there is nowhere to retreat to: our forces, like the Estonians they are defending, risk having their backs to the sea within a couple of days.
So the “New Cold War”, an idea which many termed fanciful when I outlined it in a book in 2008, could conceivably turn hot. For the first time since the Falklands War, British soldiers would be up against a first-world military adversary, quite unlike the fanatical amateurs we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That highlights perhaps the most effective feature of Zapad. Once the spectre of Russian military power is taken seriously, it raises the question of whether confrontation is worth the risk. Within the frontline states it creates doubts about whether the western allies are really committed to deterrence. And in countries like Britain, many may wonder why, nearly 30 years after the Cold War ended, we could be in a military confrontation with Russia, on behalf of faraway countries of which we know nothing.
Kremlin propaganda therefore portrays its potential victims as friendless, freeloading failures, run by self-interested, incompetent extremists. As in all the best propaganda, there are grains of truth. In some ex-communist countries emigration is a big problem. Living standards are often still disappointingly low. Some politicians are bone-headed, or firebrands, or both. But it is worth noting that the Kremlin often fosters the problems it decries. Both overtly and covertly, Russia succours political extremists of both left and right (and not only in eastern Europe).
But the real point is that western (and indeed British) security benefits from the new members of Nato and the EU. Far from causing problems with Russia, they help abate them. The British presence in Estonia is not a risky gambit but the latest sign of a century-old security relationship. Tallinn’s military cemetery is the resting place of 15 of the 112 British sailors who lost their lives there 99 years ago, when the Royal Navy was the military midwife to Estonia’s independence. For most of the next 20 years Britain was the leading outside power in the Baltic, holding the balance between Germany and the Soviet Union.
For a country like Britain, spared foreign conquest since 1066, it is hard to imagine the experiences that suffuse the Baltic states’ collective memory. “We have fear in our bones,” a senior Estonian official says, matter-of-factly. The scars of Soviet rule are everywhere in the Baltics. They have also created a resilient security culture. The Baltics (along with the Poles and others) perceive the threat from Russia better than we do. Since the 1990s they have warned western countries about Russia’s trajectory towards repression at home and aggression abroad. They have long experienced the toxic mixture of propaganda, subversion, intimidation and dirty money that Russia now deploys in the old western democracies.
During the Cold War, Soviet-occupied Estonia and its Baltic neighbours were the scene of numerous espionage operations. After Soviet rule ended in 1991, the reborn country modelled its intelligence service on MI6 and became one of our most trusted partners in dealing with organised crime, nuclear smuggling and other messy issues arising out of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Our allies in the frontline states see, hear and understand things going on in Russia that even our best experts may overlook. Estonia’s formidable capabilities in cybersecurity also benefit this country.
Lithuania’s defence intelligence has produced a tool for monitoring Russian propaganda attacks that is better than anything we have. Our 77th Brigade, the army’s “Twitter warriors”, uses the Lithuanian software as it rebuilds our neglected counter-propaganda capabilities. Lithuania helped us catch Irish Republican terrorists in a sting operation in 2008. During the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s Latvia helped intercept a consignment of Russian missiles bound for Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.
The Baltics exemplify how Russia’s ex-colonies are mostly more successful than their old imperial master. British soldiers in Estonia spend a lot of time in the border fortress city of Narva, flattened by wartime bombing and resettled by Russians who never believed they would one day wake up in an independent Estonia. Across the river lies Narva’s former suburb of Ivangorod, handed to Russia during the occupation. On the Estonian side, infrastructure, public services and wages are far higher. Elections in Narva are a real contest. Those in Ivangorod, as in the rest of Russia, are a sham. Kremlin propaganda depicts Estonia’s Russian-speaking residents as downtrodden. Yet it is hard to find anyone in Narva, even those with strong family links to Russia, with any desire to return to Kremlin rule.
The big difficulty for the West is accepting that relations with Russia are doomed to be difficult. Our instinctive approach is to believe that all problems are fixable with enough dialogue and goodwill. This is an illusion. It is true that the present situation is lamentable. But it would be perverse to blame the victims for this, when Russia is the perpetrator. Post-Soviet Russia could have made a new start in the 1990s, taking responsibility for the crimes of the past. But far from apologising for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, Russia still regards it as justified. This is as chilling as if Germany maintained that Hitler was right to seize the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, take Danzig from Poland, and occupy half of France.
Once Belgium was the “cockpit of Europe”, the place where great-power interests clashed and were settled. Now it is the Baltic Sea region. At stake is not just Nato’s credibility but that of the whole post-1991 security order. Can countries on Russia’s borders preserve prosperity, security and freedom? Or are they doomed to be provinces of their former imperial master? If the answer is the latter, meaning the end of all the multilateral security arrangements we have taken for granted, we are plunged back into might-is-right great-power politics, where the big countries do the deals they can and the small countries accept what they must.
The Baltic states have paid heavily for that already. Despite our intervention in 1918, Britain withdrew from the region under the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. That shabby deal, the result of post-Depression austerity, set the stage for the Nazi-Soviet pact four years later.
So as we brace ourselves for Zapad we should remember that Britain’s troop deployment to the Baltics is based on both principle and self-interest. Bolstering our allies’ security also blunts the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine the system that keeps us safe and free too.