NATO flexes muscles in show of strength to Russia

NATO's largest exercise since the end of the Cold War will see 50,000 troops deploy into the first snows of a Norwegian winter to show Russia that the alliance is ready to repel any attack, officers said Tuesday.
Officially, November's Trident Juncture exercise will simulate an attack from a fictional country, but it will bring a huge force into one of Moscow's neighbours just months after Russia's vast Vostok war games.
The head of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command, US Navy Admiral James Foggo said that the exercise "must show NATO is capable to defend against any adversary. Not a particular country, anyone."
And he noted that Norway has a frontier with Russia and that the huge force, backed by 150 aircraft, 60 ships and some 10.000 vehicles, would demonstrate that they can mobilise quickly to defend an ally.
"The core exercise area is 1,000 kilometres from the Russian border," said Norwegian General Rune Jakobsen, who will run the exercise headquarters. "There should not be any reason for the Russians to get scared or see this as anything other than a defensive exercise."
Two Russian and two Belarus military observers have been invited to watch the manoeuvres.
These will be the biggest such movement of NATO personnel and vehicles since at least the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, although smaller than the Vostok-18 exercise staged by Russia and China last month.
The Western allies have stepped up their military posture, with rotating garrisons in eastern Europe and the Baltic States, in the four years since Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Exercises like Trident Juncture 18 are designed to teach troops how to move a large force quickly in the event of an invasion against a NATO member triggering the allies' "Article 5" mutual defence clause.
- German brigade -
The first part of this year's exercise will simulate an effort to halt an offensive launched from northern Norway southwards by part of the force playing an adversary, Canadian General Christian Juneau told AFP.
Once the "invader" is halted, the second stage will see NATO forces figuring our how to force it back.
While the exercise is deigned to show the 29-nation alliance's unity and strength, it may also bring Western forces face-to-face with some of their own shortcomings.
US President Donald Trump has criticised many of the allies for underspending on defence and in February a German parliamentary report found that its own military has outdated equipment, often in a state of disrepair.
Officers in NATO headquarters share the concerns, but Juneau told AFP that Germany would contribute a 6,000-strong brigade to the exercise and that the bulk of its troops and vehicles are already in Norway.
The rest of the build-up is expected to be complete by October 25, with forces from across Europe and North America arriving by sea and by plane on the alliance's northern flank.
The British contingent will land in Europe in the Netherlands and make its way to Norway by road through Germany, Denmark and Sweden to test the alliance's ability to coordinate transport on civilian roads.
Once in Norway the multinational force will conduct multinational training exercises -- dealing with traffic and the first snows of winter -- and the main invasion exercise.
 A week before a crucial election, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik traveled to Russia for a Formula One race — not because he’s a big fan but for yet another meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Footage from the race in Sochi showed Putin wishing Dodik “great success” in the Bosnian election and the Serb presenting Putin with a Republika Srpska pin, the Serb-controlled autonomous region in Bosnia.
The video was a blatant display of Russia influence in one of Europe’s most sensitive regions — the fragile Balkans — where the West has sought to encourage reconciliation and reform after a brutal ethnic war in the 1990s.
The brief photo opportunity with Putin helped Dodik win the race to fill the Serb seat in Bosnia’s three-member presidency on Sunday, deepening the ethnic divisions that have held Bosnia back since its devastating 1992-1995 war.
Dodik openly advocates having Serbs separate from the rest of Bosnia and has been sanctioned by the U.S. for his policies. But he has proven to be a key ally in Moscow’s efforts to undermine the Western policies of Balkan integration.
While Russian influence is the most obvious in the Balkans, an upsurge of populism in Central Europe has also played into Moscow’s hands, providing sympathetic political parties and politicians across the continent, including in European Union nations like Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Pro-Russia forces also did well in another corner of Europe. In Latvia, an opposition party favored by the country’s large ethnic Russian minority got the most votes Saturday in the Baltic nation’s parliamentary election, although the party is expected to run into difficulties in trying to form a coalition government.
Latvia’s Russian minority is a major domestic political force, accounting for about 25 percent of its nearly 2 million people, a legacy of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1991.
Dodik’s victory in Bosnia further strengthened Moscow’s foothold in the Western Balkans, since he can how block any strategic decision — if Putin says so.
Russia staunchly opposes any more Balkan countries joining NATO. Western officials have expressed fear that Russia has used its historic Slavic and Orthodox Christian ties in the region to undermine Western policies of integration.
Sarajevo-based political analyst Adan Huskic said Moscow’s influence was also growing in the parts of Europe that don’t have those identity links.
What these countries have in common are “high levels of nepotism, corruption” so bonding more closely with Western democracies is “by nature, very difficult for them,” he said.
Russia’s strategic aim is not to assert authority over the Balkans but to “harness and magnify existing tensions,” the European Council on Foreign Relations said in a report.
“In Russian eyes, the EU’s approach toward the Western Balkans is neither serious nor systematic, and so offers Moscow opportunities to create leverage,” the report added.
Russian allies in the Balkans have been actively sowing mistrust in Western democracies, presenting Washington and Brussels as enemies who want to strip nations of their identity and national pride by pushing for EU integration.
Dodik is a perfect example. For him, the West and NATO are enemies while Russia is a friend full of respect for the Slavic “brethren.”
Absorbed in own problems — the euro debt crisis, immigration or Britain’s impending Brexit departure — the EU for years has neglected the Balkans. Alarmed, some EU officials now fear that Balkans could plunge into renewed conflict unless it’s quickly embraced by the 28-nation bloc.
“If such a complex European region gets an impression that we are not serious with the European perspective, we will experience, sooner rather than later, what we saw in the Balkans during the 1990s,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently said.
Those fears are not groundless. Tensions between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, have been on the rise despite efforts by the EU to hammer out a lasting solution between the two former war foes. Belgrade raised the combat readiness of its troops two weeks ago over Kosovo special police presence in its Serb-populated north.
In Macedonia, U.S. and EU hopes for swift passage of a deal between Macedonia and Greece to change Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia so it can join NATO suffered a blow when a Sept. 30 referendum on the name saw low turnout. The vote result raised fears of instability in the country that was on the brink of a civil war in 2001.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis saw Russian influence behind some Macedonia and Greek protests against the move. “We do not want to see Russia doing (in Macedonia) what they have tried to do in so many other countries,” he said last month.
Russia has denied meddling in any Balkan or Baltic country. But Russia’s soft-power strategy has found fertile ground among Serbs, due to NATO’s bombings in 1999 that halted a bloody Serb crackdown on Kosovo and forced Serbs to pull out.
In return for Russia’s support for Serbia’s claim over Kosovo, Serbia has been a faithful ally even though it formally pursues EU integration and uses millions in Western recovery funds.
Two Russian military intelligence operatives operated from Serbia in 2016 when they tried to organize a coup in neighboring Montenegro to stop the former Russian ally from joining NATO.
“We saw that referendum has not succeeded in Macedonia,” said Serbian analyst Bosko Jaksic. “We can see it now in Bosnia, where the Republika of Srpska became the bastion of the Russian interest. We saw it before in Montenegro, and we are seeing it in Serbia. This is helping Russians to invest the minimum and get nearly the maximum of their political influence.”