Readers of the New York Times have more to sweat about than hot summer weather in the Big Apple. The paper’s chief military correspondent, Michael Gordon ― co-author of the infamous 2002 story about Saddam Hussein’s “quest for A-bomb parts” ― has all but warned that war in Europe could break out at any minute with the mighty Russian army.
“Russia is preparing to send as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory at the end of the summer,” he reported with Eric Schmitt. Sounding like speechwriters for Senator John McCain, they called the long-planned military exercises with Belarus ― known as “Zapad” (Russian for “west”) ― “one of the biggest steps yet in the military buildup undertaken by President Vladimir V. Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.”
Gordon and Schmitt added that this latest and greatest example of “Mr. Putin’s saber-rattling,” represents “the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command.”
Many other Western news organizations have echoed this story, albeit with less alarmist rhetoric. NBC News, for example, warned that “another military challenge may be on the horizon” as “thousands of Russian troops and tanks are preparing to take part in what may be the country’s largest military exercise since the Cold War.”
The missing context
The average reader would never know that U.S. and NATO forces themselves engaged this summer in “their largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War,” to quote NPR. Nor would they know that NATO collectively spends 12 times more than Russia on its military, or that its European members alone field nearly 75 percent more military personnel than Russia.
And only the most attentive reader, reaching the bottom of the long New York Times story, would have learned that “Russian officials have told NATO that the maneuvers will be far smaller than Western officials are anticipating and will involve fewer than 13,000 troops.”
The anti-Putin director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk points out that only 3,000 Russian military personnel will take part in the exercises in Belarus from September 14 to September 20. (Additional Russian troops will engage in maneuvers within Russia itself.)
He also noted that Belarus has invited no fewer than 80 international observers to calm fears:
“In addition to the accredited military attaches of Western embassies, special delegations from the U.N., the International Red Cross... and NATO will be invited. This, by the way, is the first time when NATO observers are invited to such exercises. Separately, Belarus arranged for the presence of delegations from Sweden, Norway and Estonia.”
NATO has complained ― possibly with justification ― that Russia and Belarus have not fully complied with their obligations under the Vienna Document of 2011 to provide detailed briefings, progress reports, and opportunities to interview soldiers about the exercise.
NATO and Russia undertook after the Cold War to provide greater transparency about their military exercises to minimize the threat of conflict. In recent years, particularly following the Ukraine crisis, growing political tensions have put a strain on such cooperative measures.
A number of reasonable analysts warn that Russia may sidestep its reporting obligations by dividing its exercises into smaller units, below the threshold of 13,000 personnel that gives members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe the right to observe.
The Guardian quotes an expert on Russia’s military as saying of Zapad-17, “Unfortunately, you can’t trust what the Russians say. One hundred thousand is probably exaggerated but 18,000 is absolutely realistic.”
Even if true, such numbers hardly support viewing the upcoming exercises as an “ominous” threat to the West. A British expert, remarking on the “mythology” that often accompanies such events, noted that “Much of the Western coverage said that the 2009 exercise ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw, Poland, even though there is no evidence at all from unclassified sources to suggest this was the case.”
Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, has debunked many of the unfounded estimates of Zapad-17’s size and threat to Europe. “The Russian Ministry of Defense itself likely hopes Western media will report exaggerated figures,” he says. “Such headlines help validate the scale and success of the exercise to national leadership in Moscow. In this respect, the entire affair is an exercise in co-dependency and is self-affirming.”
Russia unquestionably wants to impress NATO with its military capabilities, Kofman acknowledges, but that’s for deterrence.
“Throughout the exercise, Russian armed forces will try to signal that they have the ability to impose substantial costs on a technologically advanced adversary, i.e. the United States,” he writes. “Russian thinking is founded on the belief that its military can raise costs for the West such that they will grossly outweigh the potential gains for sustaining hostilities, particularly if the fight is over Belarus.”
Threat inflation is nothing new
The steady drumbeat of warnings about Russian military capabilities and intentions recalls the perennial use of “threat inflation” since the earliest days of the Cold War to sell bigger military budgets and a permanent warfare state.
One of the acknowledged masters of threat inflation was NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove. Hacked emails exposed his campaign to “leverage, cajole, convince or coerce the U.S. to react” to Russia during the Obama years.
Two years ago, the West German news magazine Der Spiegel, ran a lengthy article on Breedlove’s penchant for propaganda, which reportedly left German political leaders and intelligence officials “stunned.”
He began soon after the start of the Ukraine crisis in early 2014, warning of an imminent invasion by 40,000 Russian troops massed on the border. Intelligence officials from other NATO member states had ruled out such an invasion and put the total number of Russian troops at about half that number.
“For months,” the magazine observed, “Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the U.S. Congress and in NATO.”
Russian troop advances... the massing of forces... it all sounds familiar. Sure enough, although now retired, Breedlove was one of the first to sound the alarm this year about the Zapad exercise, telling a Senate hearing that it could involve as many as 200,000 troops.
Two years ago, members of the German government condemned Breedlove’s warnings as “dangerous propaganda.” They told Der Spiegel, “The West can’t counter Russian propaganda with its own propaganda, ‘rather it must use arguments that are worthy of a constitutional state.’”
The same stricture should surely apply today, as unsupported rhetoric foments unnecessary and dangerous military tensions between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.