Bringing Blitzkrieg Back to Europe? Anakonda 2016 and NATO, Russian Combined Arms Operations

NATO recently completed a 10 day military exercise, billed as its largest since the end of the cold war, in Poland that involved 30,000 troops from about 24 different countries

The exercise is designed to emulate a “joint defensive operation on a large scale,” according to a release by the U.S. Army…

…Components of Anakonda 2016 include live-fire training, the deployment of air defenses, bridging operations across the Vistula river, operating in an electronic warfare environment and unspecified “cyber” operations, according to the Army release. Anakonda will also pull in resources from two other training exercises occurring simultaneously in the region called Saber Strike 16 and Swift Response 16.

According to United States Army European Command

This exercise further supports assurance and deterrence measures by demonstrating allied defense capabilities to deploy, mass and sustain combat powe

Naturally the exercises are presented in a defensive context, however given that in strategic affairs intent is in the eye of the beholder, the question of capability is much more significant.

Anakonda 2016 showcases NATO’s capabilities to engage in multinational combined arms military operations characterised by mass and manoeuvre and clearly with Russia very much upper most in mind.

In other words, Anakonda 2016 advertises a type of blitzkrieg capability close to Russia’s borders. These exercises come on top of the announcement that NATO will construct military bases for the rotation of conventional forces in Eastern Europe. Thus far this capability is envisaged to consist of the rotation of four battalions in Poland and the former Soviet Baltic states. These deployments could grow in future.

According to NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, the Russians themselves are carving a military sphere of influence along what Moscow calls “the near abroad:”

“We are observing massive militarisation at NATO borders — in the Arctic, in the Baltic, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea,” Stoltenberg told Germany daily Bild in an interview.

“Russia is trying to build up a zone of influence through military means,” he said

Russia also conducts military exercises that showcases its capability to engage in combined arms operations. We have seen in recent times quite a few close proximity encounters between individual military assets from both sides.

The dynamic discussed here is a little bit different. What we are observing are two very significant conventional military capabilities inching ever closer together and increasingly sized and deployed in a manner reflective of large scale combined arms operations.

This is happening because NATO, despite assurances made to Moscow following the end of the cold war, is expanding toward Russia’s borders and has expanded its mission beyond defence.

The worse situation for a Russian strategic planner given current political realities would be something akin to the state of play when the Wehrmacht was forced by Hitler to turn toward Kiev.

The presence of a hostile military alliance with the capability to “mass, deploy and sustain combat power” camped up to Kiev clearly would exercise the mind of any self respecting staff officer in Moscow. Matters have not reached this stage but a strategic situation something akin to it no longer is in the realm of fantasy.

The carving of a Russian military sphere of influence is a natural reaction to continued NATO expansion.

This all has dangerous consequences for the nuclear domain.

We often forget that conventional arms control in Europe played an important role in helping to end the cold war. There are three pillars to conventional arms control in Europe, all now under pressure, those being the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty.

The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which Russia suspended but did not scuttle in 2007, is a favourite of mine as the idea behind it reflected a lot of thinking that went into the strategic and operational consequences of the principle of common security, which was offered as an alternative to deterrence during the height of “cold war two” in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, deterrence was and remains the dominant concept underpinning strategic studies and the real world of military deployment and doctrine. Sadly, many peace analysts have forgotten about common security, and concrete real world discussion of it, in favour of “critical security studies,” which is little more than polysyllabic bombast founded upon this or that variant of continental philosophy.

The idea of the CFE Treaty was to have both Russia and NATO size and deploy its military forces such that they would not be able to engage in combined arms operations designed to outflank each other. In other words, the idea was to relegate Blitzkrieg in Europe to the dustbin of history.

Sadly, and ominously, we are now slowly reviving it and doing so in a manner that increases the risk of a nuclear exchange between Washington and Moscow.

It is interesting to reflect how mutual patterns of nuclear modernisation are accompanied by the development of conventional Blitzkrieg capabilities that increase the danger of nuclear war.

In Asia the United States has “AirSea Battle,” which is a Pacific theatre of operations equivalent to NATO’s “AirLand Battle” concept of the 1980s which compels China to respond. In South Asia India has “Cold Start,” which is supposed to give Delhi the capability through mass, manoeuvre and speed to breakthrough Pakistani army lines in a crisis. This compels Pakistan to respond, and not just in the conventional arena.

It would seem Europe is determined to go the same way.