العربية

NATO drills in Eastern Europe: deterrence or willingness to intervene?

Major General Ashraf Labib

As the two-year mark for the Russian-Ukrainian war approaches, in February 2024, joint drills involving the 31 member states of NATO will take place in several Eastern European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania), with the participation of those nations’ main military branches (land, air, and sea). These drills, known as “Steadfast Defender 2024,” will include about 90,000 participants and the use of 1,100 main armored fighting vehicles, 50 naval vessels of various types, including 2 American and British aircraft carriers, and 80 combat aircraft of various models. These military drills will continue until May 2024, as they are considered one of the largest drills conducted by the Alliance since 1988.

In parallel, and within the same broad context of these drills, a number of smaller, separate drills involving forces from the United States and Canada are being carried out across the North American continent in order to execute ground forces’ artillery and infantry operations. To be able to imitate a reaction to an enemy attack, they also involve training for fighter aircraft in cross-country racing, bombing maneuvers, and interception. It is possible that these drills will additionally include training to transfer the involved forces to Eastern Europe, reaching the eastern flank of NATO near the Russian border.

Through these military drills, the Alliance aims to analyze and test its military and logistical capabilities to enhance defensive operations between its European and American sides of the Atlantic and to coordinate between them by moving and transporting forces with their equipment and weapons from Canadian and American air and naval bases to Europe. Such operations have not been carried out since the end of World War II.

Furthermore, it aims to prepare the command and control centers of the participating units to collaborate jointly on defense tasks and duties, confront potential threats and hostilities to the alliance’s eastern bank in Europe, and potentially shift to attack tasks in order to ward off these threats. In addition to using the potential actual theater of operations for training on the ground (the countries of Eastern Europe as an area of threats and hostilities expected from the NATO leadership) to test and raise the capabilities of the forces of the member states, especially the ground forces, for actual confrontations and clashes to confront their traditional rivals on the ground (Russia and Belarus).

On top of that is NATO’s desire to test its defenses, especially since there are alliance forces that have not conducted training in some alliance countries across the European continent, it also wants to test how well the alliance forces can respond to the military situation on its eastern flank, which is exemplified by the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war for a second year, given the lack of Ukrainian military capabilities and the difficulty of its ground forces advancing and decisiveness in their counterattack against the Russian forces, as well as facing any consequences that may result from that war in Ukraine’s neighboring countries that are members of the alliance (Poland – Romania – Lithuania), which it considers areas of conflict and potential clash with Russia.

These drills also focus on confronting the threat from similar adversaries as well as terrorist organizations through testing NATO’s capabilities by simulating an emerging conflict scenario with a similar adversary and will be designed to simulate a clash with a fictitious eastern alliance called “Occasus”[1]. This demonstrates NATO’s willingness to adapt to the current evolving global security developments, which is essential to the organization’s continued relevance and efficacy in defending its members.

It is worth noting that these drills come in light of the alliance’s actual military presence in Eastern Europe, as maps of military deployment and its forms in this region show that Poland contributes nearly 120,000 soldiers to the alliance forces, and a military force consisting of approximately 10,500 individuals is stationed there and is made up of forces on land and air from the coalition countries (the United States – Britain – Croatia – Belgium), under American military command, while Romania contributes approximately 76,000 soldiers to the alliance forces, and a military force from the alliance consisting of approximately 3,300 individuals is stationed there and is composed of ground forces from the coalition countries (the Netherlands – the United States – Italy – France – Belgium – Poland), under Dutch military command.

As for Bulgaria, it contributes approximately 26,000 soldiers to the alliance forces, and near 900 members of the American ground forces are stationed there. Hungary contributes around 24,000 soldiers to the alliance forces, and approximately 800 members of the Croatian ground forces are stationed there. Slovakia also allocates to the alliance forces, estimated at approximately 13,000 soldiers, and about 2,100 individuals stationed there, forming ground forces and air defense forces from the coalition countries (Czech – United States – Germany – Netherlands – Poland – Slovenia), under Czech military command.

Lithuania contributes approximately 16,800 soldiers to the alliance forces, and a military force consisting of approximately 4,000 individuals is stationed there, including ground forces and air forces from the alliance countries (Germany – the United States – the Czech Republic – Norway – Iceland – the Netherlands – Belgium – Luxembourg), under German military command. As for Latvia, it contributes about 7,400 soldiers to the alliance forces, and approximately 1,700 individuals from ground and air forces from the coalition countries (Canada – United States – Italy – Spain – Montenegro – Albania – Slovenia – Czech Republic – Slovakia) are stationed there under Canadian military command.

Estonia also contributes roughly 7,000 soldiers to the alliance forces, and approximately 2,000 personnel from the ground and air forces of the Alliance countries (Britain – United States – France – Iceland – Denmark) are stationed there under British military command. There are also concentrations of approximately 30,000 soldiers, who fall within various units of different specializations of the forces of 27 NATO member states. These forces operate under the name “Cold Response Forces,” as reserve forces when needed, and are under the direct military command of the Alliance in Brussels.

These drills serve as a ground test for the new strategic concepts that were adopted by the NATO summit in mid-2022 following the war in Ukraine. At that time, the alliance’s priorities had changed due to the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the rise of Chinese influence in Asia, the spread and growth of international terrorism, and the effects of climate change. The challenges of modern warfare, which have recently focused on cutting-edge methods of countering electronic warfare, such as sophisticated procedures for electronic, signal, and radar jamming and obstruction, as well as the expansion of the use of drones in attack and defense, were among the several military concepts related to the Alliance’s defense strategy that were approved.

In conclusion, these large-scale drills are taking place at a critical time when the Russian forces are advancing on the ground and under their full control over most of the lands east of the Dnipro River, and in light of the inability of the Ukrainian forces to regain the lands controlled by the Russian army, as well as the failure of the Ukrainian forces to efficiently carry out their counterattacks, despite the wide support provided by the United States and European countries to Ukraine, politically, economically, and militarily. The way these drills are formulated, their processes, procedures, and structure indicate that they may become part of NATO’s preparations for the scenario of a traditional direct military conflict with Russia.


[1] “Occāsus” in ancient Latin means sunset, and figuratively speaking, sunset means the stage of decline, diminishment, loss of power or importance, the final stage or the end of something; this name for the fictitious enemy was chosen to maneuver carefully and with intention to illustrate the metaphorical end for potential hostilities and threats to the alliance in these drills.

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