trenin10_MLADEN ANTONOVAFP via Getty Images_military exercises MLADEN ANTONOVAFP via Getty Images

War Games Are No Game

Clashing worldviews and the introduction of dangerous new technologies and techniques of asymmetric warfare have made the global security environment increasingly fraught. With the annual season for military exercises now upon us, policymakers must take steps to mitigate the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculations.

MOSCOW – Since the Ukraine conflict in 2014, clashing worldviews have become deeply ingrained among NATO and Russian policymakers, and distrust is the default mindset. We are witnessing a new kind of confrontation that is fraught with military risk. As we approach another “Autumn Exercise Season” – with key events such as Russia’s Zapad-2021 and NATO’s Ramstein Alloy and Joint Warrior – there is an urgent need to mitigate the danger that training exercises become a flashpoint for conflict.

To be sure, a major-power rivalry with a strong military component is nothing new. In the past, it was the principal and decisive factor shaping and reshaping the political map and the international system. Today, military rivalries are one factor among many forces driving geopolitics, operating alongside economic development and technological prowess. But when push comes to shove, it is the military dynamic that can be expected to play a decisive role, either as a deterrent or as an instrument of coercion. That is why all major powers – the United States, its NATO allies, China, and Russia – are conducting military exercises more often and on a larger scale than ever.

This trend is likely to continue, including in and around Europe. As NATO’s own website explains, military exercises allow it to test and validate “concepts, procedures, systems, and tactics” for use in a real theater of war. NATO is also open about the fact that it has stepped up its own program of exercises to account for a “changed security environment.” Similarly, while Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has noted that exercises are part of a routine annual effort to “develop the Russian armed forces,” Russia’s Vostok-2018 maneuvers were larger than any of the military exercises of the Soviet era.