23rd Mar 2018

Nato war games come at tricky time in EU-Russia relations

  • Russian observers have been invited to watch Nato flex its muscles in Poland and the Baltic region (Photo:

Nato is to hold large-scale war games on Russia's border a couple of weeks before the EU, at an event in Lithuania, plans to take away a former Soviet jewel: Ukraine.

The military exercise, called Steadfast Jazz, will see the Western alliance put 6,000 of its soldiers, mariners and airmen through their paces in Poland and in the Baltic Sea region from 2 to 9 November.

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One hundred Ukrainian troops will also join a "live-fire" part of the drill in Poland's Drawsko Pomorskie training area.

Ukraine's ambition to join Nato faded when Germany blocked its "membership action plan" in 2008.

But day-to-day Nato relations are alive and well. Apart from joint manoeuvres, Ukraine also contributes forces to Nato operations in Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, Kosovo and the Mediterranean Sea.

It still hopes to one day join the EU.

If things go well, it will sign a political association and free trade treaty with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius on 28 November, all but killing Russia's plan to pull the former Soviet republic into a "Eurasian Union" instead.

The Russian defence ministry could not be contacted for a comment.

But the last time Russia spoke out on Steadfast Jazz, in July, its deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov, said he "is bewildered by the proclaimed goal of this exercise, which envisages … a response to an aggression against Poland. These drills are in the spirit of the Cold War."

Russia's actions on the Vilnius summit speak louder than words.

In August, it imposed a week-long customs blockade on Ukrainian road hauliers. In September, it imposed a month-long blockade on Lithuanian hauliers and banned imports of Lithuanian dairy.

Its words are also quite harsh.

At a recent meeting in Yalta, Ukraine, an aide to Russian leader Vladimir Putin said it will impose trade tariffs that will force a Ukrainian state "default" if it signs the EU pact.

Asked by EUobserver if the Nato drill risks making the pre-Vilnius atmosphere even worse, a Nato official said the two events are unrelated: "The timing and location [of Steadfast Jazz] have been long planned and we have communicated this to our Russian partners."

A spokeswoman for Lithuania's defence ministry noted: "We would not see the timing as a particular issue."

Asked if the drill is designed to show Russia that Nato is serious about defending its former Communist and former Soviet members, the Nato official said: "This exercise is about the Nato Response Force, and making sure that it is able to defend any ally, deploy anywhere and deal with any threat. It is based on a fictional scenario, including a fictional opposing country."

The drill is "not aimed against anyone," Lithuania added.

Some analysts are less politically correct, however.

Nick Witney, the former head of the EU's security think tank, the European Defence Agency in Brussels, told this website that Steadfast Jazz is designed to "reassure" Nato's new members and to "deter" any wild ideas in the Kremlin.

He said countries like Poland believe Russia still poses a threat in terms of conventional forces.

"They feel under political and psychological pressure from Russia. There has been a bit of sabre-rattling from the other side: Putin's increasingly paranoid speeches, his new re-armament programme … So they need a bit of reassurance, they need Nato to adopt a robust body language," he noted.

He added: "Deterrence is a psychological game … You need to deter people even from the most improbable events, and the way you do it is to show you are prepared to put resources and political will into maintaining your capabilities."

He also said the details of Steadfast Jazz give a hint on who might come to Lithuania or Poland's side if the "improbable" ever happened.

According to Shape, Nato's command centre, Poland itself will do the main part of the "live-fire" exercise in Drawsko Pomorskie, with 1,500 troops.

Two of the tiny Baltic states will also play a relatively big role: Estonia is sending 200 souls and Lithuania 150.

Europe's leading military powers, France and the UK, will each contribute 300 men. Italy is sending 250 and the Netherlands 200, but Germany is contributing just 75 and Spain is sending no one.

The US, by far Nato's largest member, will send only 200 people. Turkey, another large Nato country, is sending no one.

Meanwhile, Lithuania's cool tone on Steadfast Jazz stands in contrast to its alarm over a 10,000-man-strong Belarusian-Russian manoeuvre, Zapad-2013, which took place in September.

"Certainly, there is concern about the large scale military exercise 'Zapad 2013'," the Lithuanian defence spokeswoman noted.

She said Vilnius "welcomes" the fact Russia "decided to provide Nato some information on the final phase of the exercise." But she added: "We hope for even more transparency with regard to any future exercises in this series."

Lithuania's defence minister, Juozas Olekas, was more outspoken at the time.

"Certain elements used during these exercises, I believe, are directed against [Russia's] neighbours ... It shouldn't be that way," he told the BNS news agency last month.

Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.

It joined Nato and the EU in 2004.

But it is still finishing up the business of fully separating itself from its former master.

"Lithuanian-Russian state border demarcation is going on successfully. Next year, we plan to end the physical demarcation … We should have finished the demarcation process [including the signing of final documents] by the end of 2016," its defence spokeswoman said.

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