Preparing for the Worst: Are Russian and NATO Military Exercises Making War in Europe more Likely?

Ian Kearns

By Ian Kearns

Co-Founder, Board Member and former Director

Łukasz Kulesa

By Łukasz Kulesa

Research Director

Thomas Frear

By Thomas Frear

Research Fellow

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Over the last 18 months, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the relationship between Russia and the West has deteriorated considerably. One aspect of the confrontation, as previously documented by the ELN, has been a game of Russian-instigated dangerous brinkmanship which has resulted in many serious close military encounters between the forces of Russia and NATO and its partners over the last 15 months.  Another aspect, however has been the increased scope and size of the military exercises conducted by both Russia and by NATO and its partners in the Euro-Atlantic area since the Ukraine crisis began.  
To assist the public and wider policy community in understanding the realities of this new and dangerous security environment in Europe, the ELN has prepared a short policy brief and two interactive maps presenting in detail the anatomy of two recent, large scale military exercises. 
The two exercises profiled are:
  • A Russian ‘snap exercise’ conducted in March 2015, which brought together 80,000 military personnel. 
  • The NATO ‘Allied Shield’ exercise conducted in June 2015, which brought under one framework four distinct exercises taking place along the Eastern flank of the Alliance, totalling 15,000 personnel from 19 Members states and three partner states. 


Both exercises show that each side is training with the other side’s capabilities and most likely war plans in mind. Whilst spokespeople may maintain that these operations are targeted against hypothetical opponents, the nature and scale of them indicate otherwise: Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia. 
We do not suggest that the leadership of either side has made a decision to go to war or that a military conflict between the two is inevitable, but that the changed profile of exercises is a fact and it does play a role in sustaining the current climate of tensions in Europe. These tensions are further aggravated and elevated into a sense of unpredictability when the exercises are not pre-notified or publicly announced beforehand, as is apparently the case with a number of Russian exercises. 
In our view, the implementation of the following four recommendations could help to defuse or at least minimize the tensions connected with the increased frequency and scale of the military exercises now taking place: 
  • It is vitally important to increase NATO – Russia communication with regards to the schedule of exercises;
  • Both sides should utilize OSCE channels as much as possible, along with the existing catalogue of Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs) included i.a. in the Vienna Document  to increase military predictability; 
  • The politicians on both sides should examine the benefits and dangers of intensified exercising in the border areas. If Russia or NATO decides at some point that they want to reduce tensions, showing restraint in terms of size or scenarios used in exercises might be a good place to start;
  • Conceptual work on a new treaty introducing reciprocal territorial limitations on deployment of specific categories of weapons, backed by robust inspections, should commence as soon as possible. 


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN's aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe's capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.
For updates on our latest exclusive research and commentaries, please sign up to our newsletter here.