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Dec 1, 2023

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Time To Bang The Drums For Steadfast Jazz

By Edward Lucas

NATO’s most important exercises in more than 20 years will take place in early November this year. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Alliance will practice the territorial defense of its member states: once its sole task, but now one that many thought had become redundant.

NATO portrays the upcoming events rather differently. The official line is that “the primary purpose of the exercise is to certify command and control elements of the NATO Response Force 2014.” This go-anywhere, do-anything force is part of the Alliance’s evolution: conceived as a defensive military block which aimed to prevent a third World War starting in Europe, it now wants to be a flexible, nimble outfit with a wider scope.

But of course that go-anywhere, do-anything mission does not have to be in faraway wars. It could also include defending the Alliance’s Baltic members, who by virtue of their size and location are most vulnerable.

When we wrote about this fall’s exercise — codenamed SFJZ13, or Steadfast Jazz 2013 — in the Economist last year, a NATO spokeswoman was quick to put the record straight. Steadfast Jazz is just part of a process, she averred. Seventeen NATO exercises, with elements in 14 different countries, have been held before this one. “The basis is always a fictional scenario involving a fictional opposing force from a fictional country. The goal is to make sure that NRF troops are ready to deal with any situation in any environment. Steadfast Jazz 2013 is not directed against any particular country, any more than its 17 predecessors were.”

From this point of view, it is just a coincidence that Steadfast Jazz is happening at the same time as another drill, Baltic Host, in which Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania rehearse their ability to accept friendly reinforcements. It is also just a coincidence that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the only members of the Alliance to face a direct threat to their security. And it is a coincidence that Poland — which will provide the largest contingent of troops to SFZ13 — is the NATO member that, according to the Alliance’s secret Eagle Guardian contingency plans, would play the foremost role in reinforcing and defending the Baltic States in a time of crisis.

It is a coincidence too that SFJZ13 follows the sinister Russian-Belarusian joint exercises of 2009, Ladoga and Zapad, in which the Kremlin’s forces rehearsed a response to a notional attack by “Lithuanian nationalists” supported by Poland (an unlikely scenario, when you think about it). This response entailed isolating, invading and occupying the Baltic States, and included the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. To drive the point home, the exercises concluded with a separate Strategic Rocket Forces drill — involving the full might of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal — in which the notional target was Warsaw.

The message was clear. Russia is still on the military map of Europe and wants other countries to know it. That was a big wake-up call for NATO. It punctured much of the remaining optimism in the Alliance about the scope for friendly post-Cold War relations with Russia. It might be an overstatement to say that this year’s Steadfast Jazz is a direct response to the Kremlin’s saber-rattling in 2009. But it is clear that SFJZ13 could have never happened without it. Had Russia stayed peaceful and friendly, nobody would have seen the need to rehearse a response to potential territorial aggression. Even the most dovish NATO members can no longer resist the idea that the new member states of the Alliance do need defending, and that a military threat from Russia, at least in principle, does exist. And so defense planners can get on with their jobs without being distracted by flocks of doves hovering nervously over their maps.

One more coincidence is that Russia is now planning another round of fall exercises in the region. Whereas SFJZ13 planners are painfully transparent with the Kremlin (too much so, mutter some), the gesture is not reciprocated. NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, publicly bemoaned this on his recent visit to Lithuania.

It is hard even for insiders to make sense of all these supposed coincidences. If you search via NATO’s home page, the only entry about Steadfast Jazz is in French, (a terse mention in the 2012 Chicago Summit communiqué). Google-savvy searchers will find the same text in English. Those who really know NATO well can try looking on the website of the Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum, which provides four more brief entries. But many politicians and officials seem highly reluctant to talk about the subject in any detail.

As a result, SFJZ13’s public profile is vanishingly low. Although the information-management aspect of the exercise is supposedly being discussed, nothing has come of it so far. The thinking seems to be that the public would not like any whiff of old Cold War-style military maneuvers. Public opinion in Europe has a pacifist tinge. And military exercises are costly. Overburdened tax-payers hard-hit by austerity might think that the cost of the exercise (still undisclosed) is too high. So, the thinking goes, let’s pretend that nothing much is happening.

Yet keeping quiet would be a mistake. For a start, portraying the timing, nature and location of SFJZ13 as a series of coincidences is implausible. But it also misses an opportunity. The exercise offers a chance to make a number of points that the public in the United States, Europe and Russia needs to hear.

Perhaps the most important one is that America is still in the business of promoting and ensuring European security. Although the United States is withdrawing some of its forces from Europe, those that remain are a formidable force. Amid much talk of American weakness, of the damaging conflation of “partners” and “allies,” of the toxic legacy of failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, of shrinking defense budgets, of the “pivot” to Asia, of impatience with European stinginess on military spending, of broken promises to allies on missile defense and other issues, and of all manner of other woes and whinges, real and imagined, SFJZ13 shows that the basis of the NATO Alliance is still strong. It is thanks to the Obama Administration that the Baltic States and the other new members have contingency plans. It is also thanks to the Obama Administration that those plans are now being rehearsed (which is what is happening, regardless of what NATO may claim in public). Whatever the gripes of the past and worries about the future, SFJZ13 is a sign that the Alliance remains in good health.

Shyness about this is misplaced. The fundamental rationale for NATO is deterrence based on collective defense. The more aware potential aggressors are that if they pick on even the weakest member of the Alliance, they are also picking a fight with America, the less likely they are to try to engage in even the most minor mischief, let alone start a war.

The second big point to make is that Russia now presents a serious problem. Part of this is internal. Russia’s rulers regard NATO as an aggressive military alliance, which is sad. They waste their taxpayers’ money on military preparedness against a mythical enemy. They believe that NATO expansion was a plot designed to encircle their country, and to restrict its influence in its own front yard. (That the countries of that “front yard” might have their own views and worries seemingly never crosses Russian officials’ minds).

This confused mind-set is a problem chiefly for Russia. But it affects and damages neighboring countries too. The Kremlin clearly retains a desire to meddle in their affairs, whether through the injection of money into politics, through psychological warfare, through the abuse of energy and other trade ties, or even (as 2009 showed) through military saber-rattling. Russia’s behavior has a particularly bad effect in the Baltic States. Kremlin mischief-making undermines the position of local Russian-speakers, who risk being treated as a Fifth Column even if they engage in perfectly legitimate political bargaining. It rattles decision-makers and raises the likelihood that they say and do stupid things as a result. It creates an impression in other countries that the Baltic States are a “problem,” and perhaps not fully integrated into the rest of the European and Atlantic world.

SFJZ13 draws attention to the problem stemming from Russia. But it also helps mitigate it. It shows that NATO is real and that the Baltic States are real members, for which allies are willing to make real sacrifices. That is a thoroughly helpful message.

The exercise will also have positive effects in Finland and Sweden. These countries are worried about Russia too. They know that their security starts not on their own borders, but on the Baltic States’ borders with Russia and Belarus. Any threat to the Baltic States is a threat to all of Europe, and particularly to the countries in the immediate neighborhood. Steadfast Jazz offers a chance for Sweden and Finland to think about their own defense cooperation, and for politicians to explain to their voters that, sadly, it is time to take territorial defense seriously.

A third important message pertains to Poland’s role. Some voices there worry about committing too much of the Polish armed forces to the defense of the Baltic States, when their core task is at home. A futile and corrosive row with Lithuania stoked such feelings. So does the lamentably low defense spending in both Latvia and Lithuania. (Estonia, alone among the new EU member states, commits a full two percent of its GDP to defense, putting it just ahead of Poland, which is the other serious spender). But SFJZ13 underlines Poland’s new role as the regional heavyweight. Its strategic calculations should transcend the difficulties of bilateral relations with some of its neighbors. And this exercise demonstrates exactly that. Any attempt to drive a wedge between Poland and its smaller and weaker neighbors will not succeed.

Many other points can be made too: about the significant contributions from some countries elsewhere in NATO (such as France); about the lamentably small ones from others (e.g. Germany); about the need to highlight the nature of the 2009 Russian and Belarusian exercises; about the scope for further integration of the EU and NATO, and the need for follow-up. But the central message is simple. SFJZ13 is neither secret nor shameful. It is commendable both in its notional and its practical objective. Those involved should stop mumbling and start celebrating it.


Edward Lucas is a Non-Resident Fellow at CEPA and International Editor of The Economist. He has been covering the Central and Eastern European region since the mid-1980s.

This article was first published in the March 1, 2013 edition of the CED (Central Europe Digest).
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