NATO Exercises in Poland and the Baltics: The Russian Play?


2013-10-16 by Robbin Laird

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia.  This put EU and NATO expansion on hold, to say the least.

And our late colleague Ron Asmus focused on the impact of war coming back to the heart of Europe.

As Asmus commented during our interview before his untimely death:

We had come to believe that war in Europe had become impossible and that we had constructed an elaborate and effective European security system that had locked in a new Cold War piece once and for all. And my thesis here is that that system failed. 

That system failed to see the conflict coming. All the conflict prevention mechanisms that were supposed to identify and alert us to looming conflict didn’t work. And above all, we fundamentally underestimated the conflict between Russia and Georgia, which was first and foremost not a conflict over over Abkhazia, but a conflict over the right of a small county to choose its own path and go its own way in foreign policy. Georgia was determined to go West and Russia was determined to stop it; and Russia used those conflicts or manipulated them to provoke a war which in turn gave it the pretext to invade. 

I wrote the book in part because I think, you’re right, people would prefer to sweep this under the rug and pretend it never happened, blame it all on the Georgians, which is easy to do. 

But I think it raises some profound questions about why the system failed and will the system fail again because this little war not only resolved nothing, but the war aims that Russia had are still very much alive and well. The goal was not to take over Abkhazia. The goal was to break the determination of Georgia to go West and to reestablish a Russian sphere of privilege, interest, and influence on its borders, and all the seeds for another conflict are still there.

Clearly, when one looks back on 2008, the actions against Georgia were the beginning of a more assertive Russian policy.

A line in the sand was placed on NATO expansion, and neither the United States nor Europe have really crossed that line since then.

Russian observers have been invited to watch a NATO exercise in Poland and the Baltic region (Photo:
Russian observers have been invited to watch a NATO exercise in Poland and the Baltic region (Photo:

With the return of Putin to the Presidency, the centrality of energy policy has been reaffirmed and with it Russian Arctic policy.

Unlike the United States as a reluctant Arctic power, the Russians have figured out that the Arctic is a centerpiece of their 21st century strategy.

And also have figured out that energy flows from the Middle East and the Arctic are two parts of a global picture.

The “return” of Russia (rather than the reset) has been evident in the Middle East as well.  The Russians are seeking ways in the Euro crisis cracks to expand influence, and the Syrian crisis has provided a very significant opportunity to return center stage.

But returning to 2008, the year was significant for another reason: the German government blocked the path for Ukraine to join NATO, which is a major Russian objective as well.

Now NATO is preparing exercises on the Russian borders in Poland and the Baltics.

And, ironically, those exercises are occurring just prior to an EU meeting to consider the path of Ukraine to join the EU. 

Will Europe in the midst of the Euro crisis include Ukraine in the extant system or leverage Ukraine to set in motion European reform?

In a recent article by Andrew Rettman, the author highlights the confluence of events.

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. 

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.

History is made in the playing out of events and let us see how Russia, the Ukraine, NATO and Europe play out these events next month.

And with Syria, the Euro crisis, the impact of the Washington shutdown all in play, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

It is also an element of shaping the 21st century reality of European defense and security.

For earlier pieces in the series see the following: