Nato’s secretary general has warned that increasing numbers of Russian wargames, with no prior warning, combined with the withering of regular military communications channels between the alliance and Moscow raises the danger of misunderstandings between the two sides escalating rapidly.
Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, voiced his concern a few days after Russia pulled out of a joint forum with Nato countries for discussing conventional arms control in Europe.
Since the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, dialogue through the Nato Russia council, set up after the cold war, has been severely reduced, at a time of high tension and a faster tempo of military exercises by each side near to mutual borders.
“There are more and more snap exercises with no prior notification,” Stoltenberg told the Guardian during a visit to London. “It is important we keep the channels for military communication open to have as much transparency as possible to avoid misunderstandings and to make sure that incidents don’t spiral and get out of control.”
“Every nation has the right to conduct exercises, as long as they do it within their international obligations,” the secretary general said. “But the recent Russian practice of calling snap exercises is of serious concern. Sudden, unpredictable and surprise military maneuvers contribute to instability.
“Russia has conducted about a dozen snap exercises over the past two years. Russia’s takeover of Crimea was done under the guise of a snap exercise. Nato has not conducted snap exercises since the end of the cold war.”
Russia has dramatically increased the number of military flights over the Baltic region, leading to Nato’s stepping up air patrols over the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. On Thursday, it was reported that Russia had launched a new “live fire” wargame involving the Baltic fleet and paratroopers.
“The increased number of snap exercises by the Russians, the increased military presence of Russian troops along Nato borders underlines the importance of having contact and transparency and predictability.
Stoltenberg said: “We are doing what we can to make sure that’s the case, but their withdrawal from the (conventional forces in Europe) is part of a broader picture. Part of the message we convey in our political dialogue is we would like to have more transparency and more predictability.”
Stoltenberg also urged the UK to stick to its commitment to its Nato allies to keep defence spending at a level of 2% of GDP, amid predictions that Britain will fall below that percentage target as the economy grows and military expenditure is largely frozen.
There have been reports that David Cameron is exploring the possibility of counting the intelligence budget as part of defence spending. Stoltenberg made clear that would not count in Nato’s eyes.
“Civilian intelligence is not part of how we measure defence spending in Nato. How we measure defence spending in Nato is something we do according to agreed guidelines, agreed by 28 nations. So civilian intelligence is not part of that.
“The United Kingdom has for decades invested more than 2% in defence and UK is second to the United States when it come to defence spending, and I count on the UK to show leadership also in the future because we need the leadership of the UK
“I count on the UK, as I count on all the allies, to implement what we agreed, and to honour the commitments we have made together.”
However, Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a defence and security thinktank and advocacy group said it would take an extra £5bn a year in defence spending for the UK to keep to the 2% target level.
“That looks implausible,” Kearns said. “The government is trying to fix the problem not by finding new money for defence but by accounting wheezes.”