As the ominous specter of war with Russia appears all but certain, a series of classified exercises conducted over the summer by the Pentagon has left many at the Pentagon unsure the United States could defeat Russia in a protracted war. “Could we probably beat the Russians today [in a sustained battle]? Sure, but it would take everything we had,” one defense official told The Daily Beast. “What we are saying is that we are not as ready as we want to be.”
After nearly 15 years of continuous war in Afghanistan and Iraq, American ground troops are unprepared to sustain the troop levels or logistics necessary to defeat Russia in a protracted war. One of the tabletop exercises conducted by the Department of Defense “told us that the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have depleted our sustainment capability,” according to two defense officials.
The overthrow of the Russian-backed, and Democratically-elected, President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych by Western and George Soros-backed protestors, and the subsequent civil war that pitted the new government against rebels (backed by Russia) in the predominately Russian-speaking eastern half of the country has significantly contributed to the souring of relations between Russia and NATO. The presence of American troops in Ukraine training government forces has only further stoked Russian fears as NATO continues to encroach on its borders.
The European Leadership Institute, in a policy brief, asserts that there is another contributing factor in the decline of relations between Russia and the West: “the increased scope and size of the military exercises conducted by both Russia and by NATO and its partners in the Euro-Atlantic area since the Ukraine crisis began.” The policy brief points to two specific exercises:
1.) A Russian snap military exercise that occurred in March, 2015. The exercise began with approximately 12,000 troops in the far north of Russia, and grew to include 80,000 troops, 12,000 pieces of heavy equipment, 65 naval vessels, 15 submarines and 225 aircraft. The exercise encompassed: Northern Fleet coastal defense forces moving to designated defensive positions on the Kola Peninsula; airborne divisions preparing for a mock emergency deployment; aerial anti-submarine operations; emergency forward deployment of aircraft in Russia’s Western military district; anti-aircraft missile system testing; surface and anti-air action by Russia’s Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet and Black Sea Fleet; activation of marines in the Black Sea Fleet; activation of military forces in Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands; deployment of strategic bombers, fighter escorts and airborne troops to remote Arctic Islands; responses to simulated air, naval and ground attacks.
2.) NATO’s Operation Allied Shield, which occurred in June, 2015. Allied Shield was an umbrella term for four separate training exercises, including BALTOPS 15 (anti-submarine, air defense, surface warfare and amphibious landings conducted by 49 ships, 61 aircraft, one submarine and nearly 700 American and Swedish troops), Saber Strike 15 (conventional airborne and armored engagements in Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland), Noble Jump (deployment of NATO’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in Poland to detect and defeat special forces and irregular troops), and Trident Joust (command and control exercise to test redeployment of a mid-sized NATO HQ).
While it may seem that the conflict in Ukraine is the sole catalyst for the rising tensions between Russia and NATO, history shows that to not be the case. While a significant undertaking, Russia’s snap exercises in 2015 were not the largest military exercise conducted by Russia in recent memory. In 2013, Russia conducted its largest military exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union; the exercise itself involved 160,000 troops and nearly 5,000 tanks from Siberia to Russia’s Far-Eastern territory bordering China and islands bordering Japan. According to Fox News, “Konstantin Sivkov, a retired officer of the Russian military’s General Staff, told the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the Sakhalin part of the maneuvers was intended to simulate a response to a hypothetical attack by Japanese and U.S. forces.”
It is clear that Russia viewed the United States and NATO as a fundamental threat to its national security prior to the war in Ukraine. The United States’ proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe, long claimed to be directed at “rogue regimes” like Iran and North Korea, is widely (and correctly) speculated to actually be aimed at preventing Russia from deploying nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles in the event of a war with the West. With a tentative nuclear deal reached between the United States and Iran, Russia is now calling for the missile shield plans to be scrapped all together.
Apparently not content with the prospect of eliminating Russia’s nuclear deterrent, Western governments fermented the overthrow of one of the last Russian-friendly governments in Eastern Europe with the expectation Russia would capitulate and allow a new Western (and NATO) oriented government to assume control. However, the West made one grave miscalculation: misjudging how far Russia was willing to go to protect the home of its Black Sea Fleet: Sevastopol, on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Russia amended its military doctrine in December 2014 to specify NATO as its number one strategic threat, and outlined a new policy of using nuclear weapons “as part of strategic deterrent measures.” President Vladimir Putin just recently announced the approval of a revised naval policy with a renewed focus on the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin stated the focus on the Atlantic is due to “NATO expansion, the need to integrate Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base into the Russian economy, and to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean,” while the focus on the Arctic is due to “growth of the Northern Sea Route, the need for free entry into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the wealth of the continental shelf.”
As Russian nuclear-capable Tu-95 Bear bombers regularly test the air-defense capabilities of the United States, and Russia recently announced the deployment of 40 more nuclear missiles, the prospect of a cataclysmic nuclear war is all too real.