Thousands of US soldiers have been deployed to northern Germany in order to conduct a major military exercise with their allies. While the exercise officially aims to monitor and check the viability of logistics in a time of emergency, the drills are also clearly a message to Moscow. The exercises telegraph a strong gesture to counteract Russian aggression of the foregone decade, serve as a counterweight to the Kremlin’s own massive military exercises and display strength in the face of Russia’s ongoing attempts to intimidate the Baltic states, Ukraine and Caucasus.
Defender Europe: US + 17 Nations Show Resolve in Face of Russian Aggression
It is the largest US military deployment exercise across the Atlantic in a quarter of a century. With the “Defender Europe 2020” maneuver, the United States and 17 partner nations seek to practice moving large troops from America to Eastern Europe within a swift window. Together with soldiers already stationed in Europe, 37,000 servicemen will take part in the relocation exercise, which will initially run from January to May. Their goal is Poland and the Baltic States, where NATO increased its troop presence after Russia annexed Crimea in March, 2014. The subsequent relocation of the troops in Defender Europe is expected to be completed in July. While the troops also include combat sections, the focus will nonetheless be on logistics.
The maneuver is based on deployment exercises that were carried out regularly until the early 1990s, sometimes with up to 130,000 soldiers and under riskier circumstances. The timing is not a coincidence. According to the Bundeswehr and the US Army, the exercise is intended to emit a signal of deterrence. After the annexation of the Crimea, NATO agreed that the collective defense capability had to be given more weight again, and most recently, President Macron and NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had also pledged to reaffirm not only NATO’s capabilities but also its deterrence.
NATO’s POV: Second Crimea Scenario Must Not Occur
The Defender exercise serves this purpose, according to General Lieutenant Martin Schelleis, inspector of the armed forces base and responsible for logistics. “It is indeed the case that Russia is the trigger for this development due to the annexation of Crimea contrary to international law in 2014. However, Russia is not the sole reason for the exercise, and military capabilities can only be rebuilt and cultivated with exercises such as these.” Cause and effect have to be differentiated. Russia had long been able to regain what NATO was appropriating and had repeatedly demonstrated in exercises such as Sapad, Schelleis continued. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the exercise is intended to send a message to Moscow: a second Crimea scenario must not occur and if it does NATO is ready to act.
From an operational point of view, the exercise is particularly interested in establishing whether known methods would be suitable to withstand troop loads of this magnitude. For the German authorities, it is also a matter of checking the resilience of their own infrastructure such as bridges and traffic routes. After all, battle tanks on a low loader can weigh more than 130 tons. Military equipment is also planned to be transported by rail and inland waterway during the exercise.
Since the start of Defender Europe last week, protesters and left-wing politicians alike have criticized the maneuver and called it a provocation towards Russia. Throughout the operation, the Bundeswehr anticipates further protests around the area.
The exercise represents, on the one hand, an assurance of the Alliance’s support obligations and, in particular, of the United States’ commitment to Europe’s security. On the other hand, “Defender Europe 20” sends a clear signal not only towards Russia but also NATO’s members and allies who have become increasingly worried as of late due to Moscow’s behavior.
Whether or not the Kremlin will actually feel deterred by these efforts is a different matter entirely.