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Can an exercise cause a war?

14th April 2021 - 12:33 GMT | by Trevor Nash in Holsworthy


41 FAB HIMARS deployed in Romania. (Photo: DVIDS Capt Kevyn Kaler)

As Russia concentrates its forces on its border with Ukraine, NATO and Russia continue to blame each other for the current friction, much of it attributed by Moscow to NATO exercises in Ukraine.

On 10 April, the USAF 352nd Special Operations Wing (SOW) undertook a Rapid Aerial Insertion (HIRAIN) operation to deploy High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Romania.

According to 352 SOW, this exercise demonstrated the ability of US European Command ‘to quickly employ long-range precision fires in a time and place of their choosing to support NATO allies and partners’.

‘This is the second time in less than six months the 41st Field Artillery Brigade (41 FAB) has been able to practise our HIMARS rapid infiltration mission along the Black Sea along with our joint partners in Special Operation Command Europe,’ said Col Daniel Miller, the commander of 41 FAB.

He added: ‘Each time we get better, faster and more precise at being able to conduct these type of short notice deployments or missions.’

41 FAB was flown from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to Mihail Kogălniceanu Airport in southeast Romania. On landing, the HIMARS conducted several simulated fire missions before transiting back to Ramstein.

On its own, such an exercise is unremarkable but when considered alongside other NATO training events in and around the Black Sea, perception becomes the all-important factor. That difference in perception is currently raising tensions between Russia and NATO.

Tensions centre on the Black Sea that was firmly in the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War. Today, the focus is on Ukraine and the increased threat Russia perceives from that country if it joins NATO.

A US Army instructor supervises a trench clearing exercise in Ukraine. (Photo: US Army/Sgt Anthony Jones)

The Russian viewpoint is important. From its perspective, the past two months have seen the deployment of four vessels from the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group Two (SNMCMG2) flotilla to undertake a port visit and joint exercise with the Ukrainian Navy, the HIRAIN exercise described above and the visit of NATO Military Committee chairman ACM Stuart Peach.

Referring to Russian-backed rebel forces in the east of Ukraine situated around Donbass, Peach said: ‘NATO allies are united in their condemnation of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and its aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine. We call on Russia to end its support for militants in eastern Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory. Ukraine is one of NATO’s closest and most important partners.’

Looking to the future, NATO has two major exercises planned in Ukraine in the summer; Exercise Cossack Mace that will see 1,000 troops deploy from five NATO nations and Exercise Joint Efforts 2021, which is referred to as a ‘strategic command and staff exercise’. These events will clearly exacerbate the current situation.

Commenting on the NATO-Ukraine relationship as well as recent and future exercises, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu justified the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border as a ‘response to threats from NATO’.

For its part, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the Russian concentration of troops is ‘unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning’. 

The build-up may be deeply concerning but it is certainly not ‘unexplained’. As for the justification, that is in the eye of the beholder.

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