In late October, NATO will conduct its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in Europe’s North, amid growing tensions with Russia over Moscow’s development of new nuclear-ready missiles and uncertainty over the Trump administration’s commitment to transatlantic security.
“Trident Juncture 2018” will take place in Norway, which shares a land and sea border with Russia. Around 45,000 soldiers from 31 NATO allies and partner countries, such as Finland and Sweden, will participate in the manoeuvre in late October and early November, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday (3 October).
NATO sources suggested that the end figure may even rise to 50,000 soldiers as some NATO countries have not yet reported the final number of troops they send to Norway.
In addition, the alliance will deploy 150 aircraft, 60 ships and more than 10,000 military vehicles with a series of mock engagements also involving Iceland and the North Atlantic. The exercise will also serve as the final assessment of NATO’s new Spearhead Force, designed to deploy forces within 48 hours.
The scheme of the exercise is “fictitious, but realistic” and will “simulate NATO’s collective response to an armed attack against one ally”, a Norwegian military officer involved in the preparation explained to reporters in Brussels.
“Much of the exercise will happen in someone’s backyard, we will conduct the exercise amidst the Norwegian population. It is not something usual, but very realistic. We made sure to also involve environmental specialists,” he added, emphasising that this is a “high visibility exercise” and therefore “transparency is important”.
NATO’s exercise comes at a time when relations between the West and Russia reached a new low point. On Thursday, Stoltenberg, as well as top EU officials, criticised Russia’s recent cyberattacks and said Moscow should “stop its reckless pattern of behaviour”.
Last month, Russia held its biggest manoeuvre in decades, Vostok-2018, in the eastern part of the country.
According to numbers from the Russian defence ministry, it involved nearly 300,000 soldiers, 36,000 tanks and military vehicles, a thousand aircraft and 80 warships. It was, however, the first-time participation of Chinese and Mongolian military that attracted global attention, fueling speculations about stronger Russian-Chinese military ties.
Moscow is especially concerned about the increased commitment of Sweden and Finland, two of its neighbours and non-NATO members, in the Trident Juncture excercise, particularly as there a renewed debate about Sweden possibly joining NATO.
Finland, although trying to balance ties between NATO and Russia, increased the number of its participating troops.
“The escalation of NATO ‘s military and civilian activity in the Arctic region, that is, Russia’s immediate environment in the territory of Northern Norway, has not gone unnoticed,” Russian deputy foreign minister Maria Zaharova told Russian news agency TASS.
“Developments in this region can have serious consequences and not our own fault,” she said, pointing out that Moscow is convinced the Arctic and northern Europe “must remain a low-intensity zone,” Zaharova told TASS.
Invited observers and transparency
Stoltenberg called the NATO exercise “defensive and transparent” as “all members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have been invited to send observers.”
A senior NATO official said the alliance had “nothing to hide” and added “we would like to see this from the Russian side as well. Russia has not invited observers in recent years and given them full access under the agreements on mutual inspections of military exercises,” the official told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
In the recent Vostok exercises, a military officer had been invited for a Distinguished Visitors Day, which is not the same as following an exercise but rather “a scripted show”.
Eyes on the Arctic?
NATO’s previous major exercise, Trident Juncture 2015, took place in Europe’s South under a crisis response scenario. Experts suggest that with regard to the increasing geopolitical importance of the Arctic region, it is less surprising that this exercises takes place in Europe’s High North.
The Norwegian military officer told reporters in Brussels Norway has “weekly communication with its Russian counterparts on the border, we have a modus operandi regarding the movements up north, also when it comes to identifying Russian aircraft frequently”.
“Despite the current political climate, we are concerned not to create any situation up North that could lead to any kind of misunderstanding,” he said.