War Games

Shocked by Ukraine Violence, NATO Prepares to Face Down Putin

Military exercises over the last month are meant to prove NATO’s resolve. But Putin’s “little green men” and his “ambiguous assault” strategy still have it in a quandary.

ORZYSZ, Poland—The serenity of this town in Poland’s gorgeous Masurian lake district was about to be shattered. As F-16s roared from one end of the horizon to the other, they dipped to bomb a grassland strip. The blast was a stupefying white flash followed by a body-shaking howl, and it was the cue for a maelstrom of metallic shrieks. Rockets zipped out from behind the trees; tanks from Poland’s 12th Mechanized Division rumbled into view; and helicopters hovered over the melee.

Surveying the drama from a podium a quarter mile away was Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and a phalanx of army chiefs from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This was the climax to Anakonda-14, a military exercise involving some 12,500 troops from Poland and eight other NATO countries, and everyone there looked on attentively. But the big question, of course, was how closely Russia watched from afar.

The war game that ended earlier this month was staged at a crucial time: Russia’s infiltration of Ukraine—annexing Crimea and supporting rebels in the east—has alarmed central and eastern Europe. And it gave this Anakonda a sharper bite than those that have gone before.

“We all see what has happened in Ukraine,” said Lukas Wasko, a lieutenant from Poland’s 5th Artillery Regiment. “It makes our exercise today feel more real.”

Indeed. Exercises like Anakonda are just one obvious example of the way the Ukraine conflict has jolted NATO into action. Originally a solely Polish exercise, the rest of NATO was invited to take part after the Ukraine crisis erupted: 750 soldiers eventually joined Anakonda from the United States, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Hungary, as well as Lithuania and Estonia. Anakonda takes place over ten days in four main sites across Poland, and Orzysz, in the northeast, is just 35 miles from Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in the Baltic region.

Regional fears over Russia’s threat have not been diminished by the uneasy and often breached September 5 ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and pro-Russia rebels: with shelling continuing around Donetsk, in the east, it is clear that the conflict is far from settled. “Russia’s actions affect everyone taking part in the exercise,” says NATO’s Danish Brigadier General Torben Dixen Møller, serving as the Deputy Commander for Anakonda. “The lesson we learned is to increase our readiness and responsiveness.”

Poland, right on Ukraine’s border, has been particularly bullish, demanding a tough NATO response to Russia. In her inauguration speech as Poland’s new Prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz said on October 1 she would request a U.S. military presence in the country. She also announced that her new government would raise defense spending from 1.6 to 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product from 2016.

“The events in Ukraine have significantly changed our approach to security,” Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak told the Daily Beast. “We have a military conflict raging next to the Polish borders. The history of Poland teaches us that peace in the world is not a given. And Poland’s citizens expect us to do everything to ensure Poland’s security.”

The broader NATO response has been to bolster its presence among its eastern members, including Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In June, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans for a $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative to increase U.S. military deployments to Europe. At last month’s NATO summit in Newport, Wales, the alliance’s 28 leaders agreed to upgrade the NATO Response Force (NRF), a 25,000-strong multinational rapid reaction section to adapt to the new model of hybrid warfare seen in Ukraine. And within the NRF, a 4,000-strong high-readiness spearhead force is being designed to move within 48 hours to, say, Poland or the Baltic states.

The message from top NATO officials has been stern. When former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg took office as NATO Secretary General on October 1, he made it clear that Russia's intervention in Ukraine challenged Euro-Atlantic security. “NATO does not seek confrontation with Russia. But we cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which our alliance, and the security in Europe and North America rest,” he said.

It was no accident that Stoltenberg’s first overseas trip since assuming his duties, on October 6, was to Poland. “We need to keep NATO strong, we need to help keep our neighborhood stable,” he said after visiting Poland’s Lask Air Force Base.

Military exercises are an important part of the response. In September, some 2,000 NATO troops from nations including the U.S., Canada, Britain and Italy took part in several exercises in eastern Europe, including one in Ukraine itself, as part of a beefed-up military presence.

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This is partly about reassurance and deterrence. But there is a practical aspect too. As combat operations in Afghanistan wind down, so too does the main driver of NATO defense cooperation. American, British, French, German, Italian, Polish, Turkish and other troops showed how well they could work together in Afghanistan, and officials say military exercises are needed to continue these valuable interactions and exchanges. Philip Breedlove, NATO commander-in-chief, says this represents a shift, "from engagement to preparedness."

Then there is the challenge of “ambiguous assault,” the undeclared guerilla activities that Russia appears to have pioneered in Ukraine. For many, this is a new kind of warfare, applying subversion, agitation, political demonstrations and cyber-attacks—all lashed together with a virulent propaganda campaign. The “little green men,” the soldiers with Russian equipment and evident Russian training but no Russian insignia who have lead the agitation in Ukraine epitomize this approach to warfare.

Much of the talk in Anakonda was about how to deal with such a challenge. Major Eric Taylor from the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of the U.S. contribution to the exercise, described it as one of the most frightening aspects of military service. “We faced these issues of combatants without insignia in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “When you see that, the hairs go up on the back of your neck because you know something is not right. You need eyes at the back of your head.”

NATO has yet to make clear how it would respond to such tactics. Would Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty be invoked, whereby an attack on one is taken as an attack on all? Pauline Massart, Director of Security & Defence Agenda, a Brussels-based think tank, says NATO is still struggling to adapt to Russian tactics. “The new methods are evolving at warp speed and I don’t think NATO is ready,” she says. “However, there is at least a sense that security is back on the agenda with a vengeance.”

There are other questions about whether all NATO members are committed to the mission. Washington regularly complains that Europeans fail to pay their fair share of the collective defense bill: 24 out of 28 NATO members spend less than the alliance’s defense guideline of 2% of GDP. Many members also have aging equipment, including Poland. Indeed, one of the loudest, if not the most effective, weapons showcased by the Polish in Orzysz is the Neva W-125, a surface-to-air anti-missile system originally developed by the Soviets in the 1960s.

One of the biggest worries within NATO concerns Germany, where contract mishaps have delayed prestige projects like the Eurofighter jet, the Puma tank and A400 Airbus transporter planes. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has pledged that Germany will play a much greater military role on the international stage, but on October 6 she admitted the country was, "going to have some work to do," to rectify equipment problems.

Still, Ukraine has given NATO a new sense of purpose, according to Erik Brattberg, Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. “That said, underneath the surface differences in threat perception and how to deal with Russia persist,” he says. “Going forward, NATO must invest more in building local capacity in the Baltic states and other vulnerable allies in areas such as intelligence and information sharing, cyber security and energy security.”

In Orzysz, visiting German General Hans-Lothar Domröse admitted that Ukraine is testing NATO. “The invasion of Crimea was a wake-up call,” he said. “We had been too optimistic, convinced that such violations could no longer happen. Suddenly we noticed that Russia has an ugly face.” But Domröse, who is also the Commander of NATO’s Joint Force Command in Brunssum, Netherlands, insists that the alliance has always risen to its challenges. “It has been a reminder of our core defense role at NATO. We have to adapt and we will adapt.”