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NATO's largest drill in decades could drag Europe in conflict: Experts


NATO has launched its largest drill since the Cold War on January 24, aiming to "reinforce the defense of Europe." However, an exercise presupposing Russia as a threat could possible drag the region into conflict, a result neither NATO nor Russia wants, according to experts.

A regular one conducted by NATO every three year, the drill, named the "Steadfast Defender-2024," spans the Atlantic and is participated by 90,000 soldiers from 31 NATO member countries and the organization's invitee country Sweden.

Over 50 ships ranging from aircraft carriers to destroyers, plus over 80 fighter jets, helicopters and drones, and at least 1,100 combat vehicles, including 133 tanks and 533 infantry fighting vehicles, take part in this operation, according to NATO.

It is the largest one held by NATO since 1988 and set to be extended until the end of May this year.

Deterring Russia

The "Steadfast Defender-2024" will demonstrate NATO's ability to rapidly deploy forces to reinforce the defense of Europe," said the organization.

It did not explicitly name any specific country in the announcement. But its top strategic document identifies Russia as the most significant and direct threat to NATO members' security.

U.S. Army General Christopher Cavoli, who serves as supreme allied commander Europe for NATO, also noted on January 18 that the operation will demonstrate how U.S. troops could reinforce European allies "during a simulated emerging conflict scenario against a near-peer adversary."

Experts believe that the drill is a strategic preparation for Russia's possible military actions.

The exercise will use real world geographical data for the first time to create more realistic scenarios for troops.

"It means that NATO is focused on the actual combat in the real battlefield scenarios, which is a response to the real confrontation between Russia and NATO in such an environment to deal with the real possible security dangers," Zhang Hong, a researcher of Institute of Russian, Eastern European & Central Asian Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Media Group (CMG).

He added that by demonstrating their operational capabilities during the drill, NATO intends to deter Russia.

"After the Russia-Ukraine conflict, NATO has continued to strengthen the deployment of troops to Central and Eastern Europe, for example, the original strength of a battalion has been upgraded to that of a brigade," Teng Jianqun, a senior researcher at China Institute of International Studies, told CMG.

"Through this exercise, some of the equipment will stay in those areas," Teng said.

He noted that the Baltic Sea Region is a key area for NATO's operation to keep a high level of vigilance over the movement of Russian fighters in and out of the region, and maneuvers to deal with Russian actions at any time.

Worse than the Cold War

Experts believed that neither NATO nor Russia wants a fight in Europe, as it is a difficult outcome for anyone to bear. However, by presupposing possible conflicts between Russia and NATO countries, what NATO is doing is stirring tensions.

Russia had expressed strong opposition to the drill before it started.

"An exercise of this scale ... marks the final and irrevocable return of NATO to the Cold War schemes,"Russia's deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko said, warning that "any events of this scale significantly increase the risk of military incidents and further destabilize the security situation."

"But the interests of European security today are of little concern to those who lead NATO; the main thing for them is to keep this instrument of American influence afloat in the already lost struggle to preserve Western hegemony in the world," he added.

Last time NATO conducted a drill of such kind was in 2021, before the outbreak of Russia-Ukraine conflict. The larger scale of this year's operation is also a response to the changed European security situation, said Ding Xiaoxing, dean of Institute of Eurasian Studies at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

He added that despite the West's continued assistance to Ukraine, NATO did not send troops to assist, so the conflict did not expand through Europe.

"But in the future, we can not rule out the risk that, for example, F16 fighters take off from the airfields of a NATO country to attack Russia, and the country will become the target of Russia's strikes. In response, NATO will activate its Collective Defense Treaty, and there will be a direct conflict between Russia and NATO," Ding told CMG. "This exercise is based on such risks," he noted.

"Russia's relations with Europe are worse than they were during the Cold War. They are not only in a 'cold war' now, but also in the possibility of a military conflict," said Ding.

(Cover: The naval vessel "Bonn" is in port before departure for NATO's drill "Steadfast Defender-2024" in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, January 15, 2024. /CFP)

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