NATO Exercise ‘Cold Response 2012’: A Crisis Response Operation or a Provocation to Russia?

The movement of major NATO and Partnership for Peace forces into northern Norway this week in preparation for Exercise Cold Response 2012 (12-21 March) may be no more than a concerted effort to ‘rehearse high intensity Crisis Response Operations in winter conditions within NATO with a UN mandate’, but Russia may not see it quite that way.

The exercise, long in the planning, coincides with the election of Vladimir Putin to the Russian Presidency and comes shortly after the announcement of a major injection of capital to modernise Russia’s defences over the next decade, with a particular focus on the renovation of the Northern Fleet to protect Artic sea routes.

Commander Norwegian Joint Headquarters (COMNJHQ), Vice Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen will co-ordinate the exercise involving 16,000 land, air and maritime servicemen and Special Operations Forces from 15 nations, mainly from Canada, France, Norway, The Netherlands, Sweden, UK and USA. They will operate on Norwegian and Swedish territory and in their air space as well at sea.

In his remarks at the Allied command Transformation Seminar in Washington DC in February, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that NATO’s “ability to execute effective operations depends on our ability to acquire effective capabilities”. He said that ‘Smart Defence’ meant setting priorities and seeking greater cooperation with the European Union. Such an objective would also need greater transatlantic defence cooperation.

“In sum, Smart Defence is a significant shift in the way NATO and Allies conduct capability development. And at the Chicago Summit [20/21 May], I expect all Allies to make a strong, long-term political commitment to this new approach”.

Rasmussen went on to emphasise the importance of NATO’s Response Force in expanding the exercise schedule and “to draw maximum benefit since the recent United States’ decision to rotate units from an American-based Brigade Combat Team through Europe to participate in the NATO Response Force. Operationally, this would maintain and strengthen our transatlantic ability to work together. And politically, it would provide visible assurance to Allies”.

Clearly, Russian officials see this NATO-Swedish exercise as provocative and part of a broader policy of securing the Arctic zone for commercial benefit. A recent military exercise ‘Artic Ram’ was conducted in the Canadian Artic as a forerunner to Cold Response. These exercises hardly justify the proposed $80 billion dollar boost for the Russian defence sector, but both NATO and Russia appear determined to up the military ante in seeking to protect trading routes through Arctic waters to the Far East and Asia.

In February, Prime Minister Putin said that Russia can’t maintain its international position or protect its economic interests unless it has the defence capability to match. He stated that NATO’s expansion eastwards was halted in Georgia in 2008 and that he opposed the US’s missile defence programme for the region. Russia’s response would be “effective and asymmetrical”.

“President Putin is now firmly back in charge of Russian foreign policy until 2018. His stance on defending Russia against outside interference and potential threats to its territorial integrity and ‘zones of influence’ is, in reality, no different to that taken by the US and other NATO members”, said NATO Watch Director Dr Ian Davis. “With the militarisation of the Arctic, previous mistakes are being repeated on both sides. Rather than develop the region as a zone for NATO-Russia (and wider international) cooperation, old twentieth century divisions are being re-ignited by such provocative military exercises and rearmament”, he added.

Improving collaboration in the Arctic was one of the key recommendations of the recent report of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI).