Nato puts on a show of force


During Nato exercises, a convoy including Stryker armoured combat vehicles heads toward the Polish border in Frankenberg, Germany. — ©2024 The New York Times Company

ABOUT 90,000 Nato troops trained in Europe this spring for the Great Power war that most hope will never come: a clash between Russia and the West with potentially catastrophic consequences.

In Estonia, paratroopers from the US 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Liberty, North Carolina, jumped out of planes alongside soldiers from Colchester Garrison in Essex, Britain, for “forcible entry” operations.

In Lithuania, German soldiers arrived as a brigade stationed outside Germany on a permanent basis for the first time since World War II.

And on the A4 autobahn in eastern Germany, a US Army captain and his Macedonian counterpart rushed toward the Suwalki Gap – the place many war planners predict will be the flashpoint for a Nato war with Russia – hoping the overheated radiator on their Stryker armoured combat vehicle wouldn’t kill the engine.

All were part of what was a tremendous show of force by Nato, its largest since the start of the Cold War, that was meant to send a sharp message to President Vladimir Putin of Russia that his ambitions must not venture beyond Ukraine.

But it was also a preview of what the opening beats of a modern Great Power conflict could look like.

If Nato and Russia went to war, the United States and allied troops would initially rush to the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – Nato’s “Eastern Flank” – to try to block penetration by a Russian force.

How that war would end, and how many people might die, is a different story. Tens of millions of people were killed in World War II. This time, the stakes have never been higher.

Putin has brought up the potential for nuclear war several times since Russia invaded Ukraine more than two years ago.

National security officials are making plans for cyberwarfare, too, including how to defend US and Nato interests against a possible cyberattack on public infrastructure.

But a European continental ground war has seemed far more possible since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Maintenance personnel checking systems of vehicles before the convoy departed. — ©2024 The New York Times CompanyMaintenance personnel checking systems of vehicles before the convoy departed. — ©2024 The New York Times Company

“This exercise changes the calculus for our adversaries – that’s the real power of this,” said Gen Darryl Williams, the American general who leads Nato’s Allied Land Command.

Putin, he said, “is watching this and saying, ‘Hmm, maybe I need to think twice here’.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine infuses almost every movement of the exercises, which began in January and will continue through May.

It is why some of the US troops experimented with commercial drones that they could weaponise by fixing with explosives, to see how to counter such tactics, much as Russian troops have had to learn how to defend against Ukraine’s use of store-bought drones that have been MacGyvered with explosives.

It is also why the overheated Stryker carrying the two American and Macedonian captains looks almost exactly like all of the other Strykers, with the exception of its lighter machine gun.

In Ukraine, several senior Russian military leaders have been killed. The Kremlin has confirmed seven; Ukraine says 13.

Military officials said that on the battlefield, the Russian top brass made themselves conspicuous. They often appeared rooted in the same place, US military officials said, instead of moving around.

Sometimes several command vehicles were hooked together with antennas next to them, almost advertising, one military official said, the presence of Russian generals and officers.

Nato and US military officers don’t want to make the same mistake.

“I think that what we found is that our command and control needs to be more survivable,” said Col Robert McChrystal, commander of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is based in Vilseck, Germany, near the Czech border.

“We need to be more mobile, and we also need to gain dispersion.”

Fox 66, the Stryker carrying the captains, was the command-and-control vehicle for the four-day road-march part of the exercise that made its way to Suwalki, Poland, from Vilseck.

To the untrained eye, all of the military-green armoured vehicles looked as if they had the same array of guns and tactical equipment.

But Fox 66 was mounted with a lighter machine gun. In a firefight, it would not be on the front line; it would be directing operations from the back, so it does not need the armour-piercing penetration power of the.50-caliber machine guns mounted on the other vehicles. The two guns are close to indistinguishable from the air.

Inside Fox 66, Capt Milos Trendevski, fresh from Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, contorted his 183cm frame around the flak jackets, backpacks, rations, guns and equipment crammed inside the vehicle as it made its way toward Poland.

The Americans in the vehicle carried language translation devices, but Trendevski didn’t need one.

“We need to see how the US Army does marches like this so our doctrine can be the same,” Trendevski said in English in an interview inside the Stryker.

Just a few inches from him, Capt Matt Johnson, commander of the Stryker unit, kept up a constant stream of worried questions.

“She burning hot?” he asked the driver, SPC Sean McGarity.

“Two-twenty-five, Sir,” came the answer.

“Slow down a little, see if it goes down.”

McGarity slowed down and the engine cooled off, and a collective sigh seemed to exhale inside the Stryker.

The Suwalki Gap is a 105km, sparsely populated stretch of land straddling Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad.

After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the Estonian president at the time, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, came up with the name “Suwalki Gap” to highlight for Nato officials the area’s vulnerability. His move worked: Western military officials quickly adopted the phrase.

Western military officials believe the Suwalki Gap is likely to be the first territory that Moscow would try to take. Russian forces in Kaliningrad, assisted by Russia’s ally Belarus, could move in, isolating the Baltic countries if successful.

The road march is supposed to test how quickly Nato can get troops to the Suwalki Gap.

The road march culminated with a live-fire exercise in a training area near Suwalki, with 1,800 2nd Cavalry troops joining 2,600 troops from nine other countries to establish what the military called an “enhanced forward presence” to protect Nato’s eastern flank.

The troops blew up pop-up targets and seized territory. American Apache helicopters made passes and gave covering fire, while, from an even higher altitude, Polish F-16 and Italian F-35 fighter jets conducted airstrikes.

Nato’s ability to “bring together these seemingly disparate units from different nations to conduct something so complex is what sets us apart,” said Col Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for the US Army. It was, he said, a demonstration of “combined arms” manoeuvring.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has been able to do combined arms, where all parts of a manoeuvre force – air, land and, sometimes, sea – coordinate and work in concert. Tanks and artillery, and even airstrikes, hit a target before infantry soldiers go in.

Williams, the Nato land forces commander, said that in the past, such exercises did not name the enemy – there was just a fictitious opponent.

Not so this year.

For the first time, “we now, in this year, are actually fighting an exercise against the Russians,” he said. “We fight against our potential adversary.” — ©2024 The New York Times Company

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