Amidst Russia-NATO tensions over Ukraine, the Kremlin is testing the country's military capability. In response, NATO has also been initiating large-scale maneuvers in Europe.

A serviceman at the battalion task force drill of the Baltic Fleet's coastal defense troops supported by air force at the Pavenkovo base of the Baltic Fleet, Kaliningrad Region. Photo: RIA Novosti

Last week’s unannounced inspection of the combat readiness of Russia’s Northern and Baltic fleets, Western Military District and airborne troops was perceived in the West as yet another demonstration of power by the Kremlin. The scale of the maneuvers is certainly impressive, ranging as they do from the mountains of the Caucasus to the islands of the Arctic. Moreover, they are not the first such exercises this year. Since the beginning of the events in Ukraine, both Russia and NATO have sharply increased military training, drilling different scenarios of potential military conflicts.

It all evokes memories of the large-scale military exercises of the Cold War. Against the backdrop of these events, here is an overview of how military drills evolved during and after the Cold War, as both Russia and NATO alternated between a cycle of trust and distrust.

Military exercises during the Cold War

The bloc system that took shape after the Second World War gave rise to the need for major international drills. The two opposing sides — NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries (formally known as the Warsaw Treaty Organization) — carried out joint exercises involving troops from each of their respective member countries, the purpose of which was to ensure a coordinated response in the event of war.

The largest maneuvers conducted by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact as a whole, such as Dnepr-67 and Zapad-81, involved hundreds of thousands of troops. At the same time, some extremely complex and out-of-the-ordinary scenarios were run through, such as the landing of military aircraft on civil highways, the simultaneous airdrop of large airborne units, the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and others.

NATO’s maneuvers during the Cold War did not yield an inch to the Soviet Union in terms of scale. For instance, Able Archer-83, a large-scale command and control exercise in Europe, was regarded by the Soviet leadership as cover for the deployment of troops in advance of a nuclear strike, which provoked reciprocal measures and in November 1983 brought the planet to the brink of Armageddon.

The arrival of a new and promising Soviet leader, Michail Gorbachev, did not put a stop to NATO exercises, the largest of which in the perestroika years was Reforger-88 in West Germany, involving 125,000 army personnel. The basic idea of such maneuvers was to drill different scenarios for either repelling a potential enemy attack or launching a preemptive strike.

From distrust to trust: Military exercises after the Cold War

The end of the Cold War and the resulting drop in international tension put paid to global demonstrations of force and preparations for large-scale hostilities. Moreover, starting in the early 1990s, a package of agreements was signed to help build trust between the former adversaries.

The 1990 “Vienna Document of the Negotiations on Confidence and Security” was the first to provide for the exchange of information on the two sides’ armed forces, including the consolidation of large bodies of troops and planned maneuvers.

The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which was signed in late 1990 and entered into force in November 1992 (and from which Russia recently withdrew), introduced restrictions on the number of weapons that could be deployed from the Atlantic to the Urals. In addition, the document also set a limit on the number of military groups in so-called “flank zones” — points of contact between Russia and NATO countries.

Both sides virtually abandoned large-scale maneuvers. For many years the main focus of NATO drills was on local tasks: averting terrorist attacks, peacekeeping operations, raising the combat readiness of new and potential Alliance members. The scenarios envisaged under NATO’s exercises were “peaceful” and pertained to protecting civilians caught up in ​​war zones, freeing hostages and routing terrorist groups.

For example, the large-scale (for the 2000s) Sea Breeze-2008 drills, held two weeks before the conflict in South Ossetia, involved 1,000 soldiers and 18 ships. Peacekeeping and humanitarian operations were stated as the main purpose of the exercise.

It should be mentioned that in the first decade of the 21st century, NATO and Russia actively cooperated in peacekeeping and humanitarian activities. For instance, Russian military units took part in the Rescuer/ Medical Exercise Central Europe (MEDCEUR)-2002, which took place in the Baltic region in July 2002 under the NATO Partnership for Peace initiative.

In March 2004 the operational center of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency at Schriever Air Force Base held joint staff command exercises between NATO and Russia dedicated to non-strategic missile defense, in which 15 Russian experts participated. 2011 saw the first joint exercises to combat air terrorism, codenamed Vigilant Skies-2011, which role-played a scenario in which NATO and Russian fighters rescued a Polish airliner hijacked by terrorists.

From trust back to distrust: Military exercises after the South Ossetian conflict

After the South Ossetian conflict, Russia-NATO relations took a dramatic turn for the worse. A year later, in August-September 2009, Belarus hosted Zapad-2009, the largest exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union with the participation 33,000 Russian and Belarusian service personnel. The drills simulated large-scale offensive and defensive operations, including the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.

Yet military analysts concur that the main objective was not a demonstration of power aimed at the West, but the correction of certain “errors,” namely the ironing out of the numerous institutional weaknesses in the armed forces of the Russian Federation identified during the war in South Ossetia. On evaluating the maneuvers, NATO analysts assessed Russia’s combat readiness as fairly low. In Russia, meanwhile, the results prompted a number of changes at the top of the Ministry of Defense and adjustments to the ongoing reform of the country’s armed forces.

After Ukraine: Once again, military exercises go global

Looking ahead, one sees the nature of such exercises becoming ever more global. Russia’s Zapad [West] and Vostok [East] exercises have been carried out several times since 2009. For instance, Vostok-2010 involved more than 100,000 service men and women, 1,500 tanks, 120 aircraft and 70 ships, while Vostok-2014 upped the figures to 155,000 troops and 2,500 units of equipment, making them the new record holder as the largest maneuvers since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian events of February 2014 and the subsequent rise in tension on Russia’s borders could not fail to provoke a response. The Kremlin was forced to take steps to rapidly increase the combat readiness of Russia’s armed forces. In this regard, the period 2014-2015 has seen drills carried out with high frequency, many of them unscheduled.

Zapad-2014, involving tens of thousands of service personnel and joint exercises with India and China, on top of large-scale maneuvers in the Far East, is proof of that. In August 2014, Ashuluk Air Base in the Astrakhan region hosted aviation drills with more than 100 aircraft. For comparison, NATO’s Ample Strike-2014 exercises in the Czech Republic a month later featured just 30.

But NATO is becoming more active: in May last year the Partnership for Peace-2014 naval exercises were conducted in Latvia, in which 700 people took part, while the Baltops exercises of June 2014 in the Baltic Sea were a little more ambitious with 1,400 participants from 13 countries. Each of NATO’s largest exercises, Spring Storm, held in May 2014 in Estonia, and Steadfast Javelin, which took place in Poland and the Baltic States in September 2014, involved about 6,000 military personnel.

In 2014 alone NATO conducted in total more than 10 different exercises in countries bordering Russia, from Ukraine to Norway. So far this year Estonian, Latvian and American troops have held winter drills on the island of Saaremaa for the purpose of repelling a potential amphibious assault and training the Estonian Air Force. Almost simultaneously with Russia’s spot check of the combat readiness of its armed forces, which began on March 16, NATO started exercises in Norway.

What's more, the largest maneuvers ever in the modern history of the Baltic region are planned for May of this year. Codenamed Hedgehog-2015, the exercises will involve a total of 12,000 troops.

Military exercises: Russia vs. NATO

Today, against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, it is important to bear in mind that the objectives of NATO’s and Russia’s military exercises differ substantially. As the leader of the Alliance, Washington is primarily concerned with overseeing the precise coordination of allied actions, developing ways to redeploy U.S. troops to Europe in the event of a global conflict, and ensuring that allies address military infrastructure requirements. After all, despite the common set of standards, the armies that make up NATO forces differ significantly in terms of both weaponry and combat training.

Meanwhile, Russia is primarily focused on training its national army (weakened as it was by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic upheavals of the 1990s), increasing combat readiness, ensuring the capacity to respond quickly to any challenge, and “breaking in” new military equipment. All international exercises involving troops from the Russian Federation (save for Russian-Belarusian drills) are of a purely humanitarian nature, military officials claim.

At the same time, the U.S. Army, whose presence in Europe since the late 1990s has decreased by an order of magnitude in some areas, is still NATO’s driving military force. And it regularly raises its combat readiness without being bound by any agreement to exchange information about maneuvers on its territory (save for training launches of some types of missiles).

Moreover, far less is known about large maneuvers conducted on U.S. soil. The scenarios and scale of such exercises are typically kept under wraps, but it is not ruled out that they are comparable to Russia’s in terms of numbers involved.

At the same time, the U.S. military has been honing its cyber defense capability and techniques to intercept enemy aircraft. It regularly carries out exercises in Alaska (codenamed Northern Territory and Red Flag), which were canceled in 2013 due to the budget sequestration, but are on the whole far larger than most of NATO’s European drills.

It can be assumed that the international tension over Ukraine will prompt both sides to maintain the high frequency of military maneuvering. The declaration made at the NATO summit in September last year in Wales on the creation of a rapid reaction force will likely compel the Alliance to initiate Russian-style unscheduled spot checks of combat readiness, which are vital to ensure that its diverse and heterogeneous forces can indeed deliver a rapid response to military threats.