NATO launched its largest military drill since the end of the Cold War on Thursday, with 50,000 troops taking part in a simulated Russian invasion of Norway.
Thirty-one nations—the 29 NATO members plus Finland and Sweden—are taking part in the exercise, which will run until November 7 in central and eastern Norway, the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. Around 65 vessels, 150 aircraft and 10,000 vehicles will also be taking part in the Trident Juncture 2018 drill, the Associated Press reported.
Moscow, which was briefed by NATO on the exercise and has sent observers, has reacted angrily to the massive drill, warning it would consider a response to increased NATO activity close to its European border.
On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned, “NATO’s military activities near our borders have reached the highest level since the Cold War times.” He added that the purpose of the drill will be “simulating offensive military action.”
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova noted, “The escalation of NATO’s military and political activity in the Arctic region, namely, in the immediate vicinity of Russia on the territory of northern Norway, hasn’t gone unnoticed,” as reported by Russian state media outlet TASS.
The exercise is the largest held in Norway since the 1980s, and comes at a time of mutual distrust between Russia and NATO. Following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and continued involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, NATO has been reinvigorating its forces guarding its northern and eastern flanks.
The U.S. recently decided to increase its deployment of Marines to Norway to guard against any Russian aggression. While 330 troops were previously based in central Norway, from 2019 the number will increase to 700 and they will be deployed closer to the Russian border.
Such deployments, military exercises and other activities “cannot be ignored, and the Russian Federation will take the necessary tit-for-tat measures to ensure its own security,” Zakharova warned earlier this month, as reported by TASS.
Iceland’s foreign minister, Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, and the defense ministers of Sweden (Peter Hultqvist), Norway (Frank Bakke-Jensen), Denmark (Claus Hjort Frederiksen) and Finland (Jussi Niinisto) penned a joint op-ed Thursday in the Swedish Dagens Nyheter newspaper. The ministers noted that there are “no military threats against the Nordic countries today, but we live in an unpredictable and uncertain time.”
“Russia has both shown the will and ability to use military force to achieve strategic goals,” the article warned, explaining, “Cyber-attacks and disinformation are actively used to create divisions between people in Europe as well as in the United States, which in turn challenges democratic institutions and our ability to reach common conclusions.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed the presence of Russian observers during the exercise, noting their attendence would not be a problem, “As long as they behave professionally and avoid dangerous situations and behavior,” reported Radio Free Europe.
Stoltenberg explained the 50,000 troops, split into two teams, will “take turns playing the role of the fictitious aggressor and the NATO defending forces. The exercise will test our readiness to restore the sovereignty of an ally—in this case Norway—after an act of armed aggression,” Stoltenberg explained, adding, “This scenario is fictitious but the lessons we learn will be real,” he said.
Russian forces held their own drills last month, the Vostok-2018 exercise, marking the largest such maneuvers since 1981. Around 300,000 soldiers were mobilized to join drills in the far east of the country with the Chinese and Mongolian armies.