Nato has kicked off its largest military exercises since the Cold War across northern Europe as the West tries to keep up with Russia’s growing military presence in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea.
Some 50,000 soldiers, 250 aircraft, 65 ships and 10,000 tanks and other ground vehicles are taking part in the Trident Juncture war games that began Thursday at locations from Iceland to Finland.
With 31 countries involved, they are meant to test Nato’s response to an attack on Norway, where most of the drills are taking place.
Footage showed treaded vehicles barrelling down muddy forest tracks, soldiers marching through barren northern landscapes and F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets taking off from remote runways.
While the envisioned aggressor state has been dubbed “Murinus,” a “fictional near-peer adversary on the north-eastern flank of the Alliance,” it’s clear that the manoeuvres are rehearsal for a potential conflict with Russia.
They follow the massive Vostok exercises Russia held along its eastern borders last month. The defence ministry claimed that they included 300,000 troops, the country’s largest war games ever.
Chinese soldiers also participated in a sign of the strengthening ties between Moscow and Beijing.
Norway shares an Arctic border with Russia and has received a permanent deployment of US marines following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine. It has hosted a number of smaller Nato exercises with names like “Cold Response” and “Dynamic Mongoose” in recent years.
Russia for its part has created an Arctic motorised rifle brigade, developed a fighting snowmobile and established several military bases and radar stations on northern islands and along the Arctic coast.
London said last month it would deploy 800 commandos to Norway and establish a base in the north of the country in response to Russia’s rising Arctic activity.
The UK has sent 2,700 troops to Trident Juncture, as well as six ships to train diving, bomb disposal and antisubmarine capabilities off the coast of Norway.
Secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday the exercises would show that Nato was ready to defend its allies amid a “significantly deteriorated” security environment in Europe. Sweden and Finland are taking part even though they are not Nato members.
The focus of the war games has not been missed in Moscow. A deputy foreign minister said on Thursday the exercises were “anti-Russian” and would be “taken into account in our military planning”. The defence minister called the level of Nato activity near Russia’s borders “unprecedented since the times of the Cold War”.
Awarding medals to officers in the Kremlin on Thursday, Vladimir Putin promised Russia would continue to modernise its military and “do everything necessary to reliably defend the motherland from any potential threats”.
The size of Trident Juncture was ratcheted up in recent months as concerns about Russia’s military actions heightened. The USS Harry Truman with its crew of 6,000 was brought in, becoming the first American aircraft carrier to travel to the Arctic since the Soviet breakup.
Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said Trident Juncture was reminiscent of 1980s Nato drills against a Soviet threat in the north and showed the alliance was following through on promises to ramp up its capabilities in eastern and northern Europe.
“They’re the biggest Nato exercises since the end of the first Cold War and the fact that they are being held just shows that a new Cold War has started,” he told The Telegraph. “This means the confrontation is becoming more harsh.”
With 50,000 US troops involved, the exercises also provide a reassurance that Washington remains the leading force behind Nato. That had come into question when Donald Trump, who has frequently praised Mr Putin, lashed out in July at Nato members he said weren’t spending enough on their militaries.
Tensions with Russia have also been stoked by the United States’ planned exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a decision Mr Trump’s national security advisor personally informed Mr Putin of on Tuesday.
The next day, Mr Putin said Russia would target European countries if the United States deployed nuclear missiles there.
Besides the Arctic, Nato forces are holding manoeuvres in the Baltic Sea, where increased activity by both Russia and Western countries has resulted in an uptick in close encounters between aircraft and flyovers of military ships. Increasing numbers of Nato troops have been deployed to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, including several hundred British soldiers.
Despite lofty rhetoric from Nato commanders, the Trident Juncture exercises got off to a rough start when four US soldiers were injured in a collision between supply trucks in Norway on Tuesday.