Military Escalation in the Balkans as Russia Conducts Largest Exercises since Cold War
By Nathaniel Purtell
On September 14, Russian military forces began engaging in joint military exercises with Belarus. The exercises involved 7,200 troops from Belarus, 5,500 from Russia, and used 70 aircrafts, 680 land vehicles, and 250 tanks.
The drills are said to be “purely defensive” allegedly in response to extremist groups infiltrating Belarus and Kaliningrad “to carry out terrorist attacks.”
In the aftermath of the exercises, contention remains over western media and Kremlin-controlled outlets portrayal of the drills. RT news, an outlet controlled by the Kremlin, has published several stories and fact sheets calling the western media “hysterical.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that the “whipping up of passions” around the drill is a provocation.
Under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also known as the Vienna Document, countries are required to report on their military exercises, and to invite observers to exercises involving more than 13,000 service members. The Russian military is trying to undermine this by reporting its exercises only had 12,700 troops involved, a figure that is highly contested.
Western military institutions have become weary of the operations, fearing the possibility of weapons proliferation, and the possibility the Kremlin is not fully disclosing its intentions. In July, US Lt. General Ben Hodges stated that the exercises could be used as a “Trojan horse.” The US later deployed 600 paratroopers to the region in response to the escalation.
German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen disputed the numbers, stating that there would be more than 100,000 participants. Ukraine has also expressed concern with the drills’ potential threat to its own borders.
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, accused Russia of “falling in its obligations” to maintain regional security by inviting observers. The exercises have received further backlash after videos of a Russian helicopter firing rockets at bystanders surfaced.
The exercises come after multiple escalations of military force in the region: in particular, Russian invasions of Crimea and Georgia, and involvement in the war in Ukraine.
NATO has increased its forces along the Russian borders multiple times; a most recent example is the U.S. addition of 4,000 soldiers to Poland. Russia simultaneously has modernized and increased its forces along the border, in addition to adding nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
However, NATO has been unsuccessful in calming eastern European anxieties over Russia’s increased military presence. Traditional defensive escalation has not proven effective towards both Russia’s offensive drills, and its new weapon of choice, hybrid warfare, which combines misinformation, riots, strategic support of grassroots organizations, cyberwarfare, and resource control. This highly-effective strategy has mitigated the effects of all-out invasion, and underlies the recent military exercises.