Later this month, NATO is set to embark on its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War – Steadfast Defender 24. The scope and scale of the exercise is unprecedented, involving 90,000 troops from 31 Alliance member states, along with Sweden, which has been invited to participate.
Although the official documents do not explicitly mention a potential Russian offensive, the basic purpose is clear – to test NATO's ability to deal with a simulated emerging conflict scenario with a close adversary, widely recognized as Russia.
Today, it is no longer hidden, so several NATO officials have already openly said that the purpose of the exercise is to prepare for a possible conflict with Russia.
Increase in transatlantic forces
The first phase of Steadfast Defender 24, which begins in late January, focuses on increasing the transatlantic force.
This phase is crucial, as it aims to determine whether the United States can deploy significant numbers of troops and equipment to continental Europe in a short period of time and quickly to establish a robust defense. The symbolism of this phase is heightened by the timing of the presidential campaign in the United States.
With the possibility of a president questioning the relevance of NATO, especially his adherence to the principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all, the exercise has strategic importance. Of course, we are talking about Donald Trump, who made a series of statements against NATO, claiming that the USA spends its money to protect others.
A very interesting opinion of the former president, with which the majority of citizens in the USA would probably disagree. But that does not mean that Donald Trump will not win, despite such anti-NATO statements, he enjoys the highest popularity so far, if we are to believe various researches and polls.
Challenges to NATO unity
The question of America's commitment to NATO remains relevant, and Steadfast Defender 24 is seen as a test of the alliance's unity.
Images of U.S. troops participating in joint exercises with other member militaries may provide reassurance, but concerns about a diminished U.S. commitment remain, especially with the upcoming presidential election. The alliance will face the challenge of proving its vitality and relevance in the absence of strong American support.
Of course, these challenges will be even greater if, in any case, Trump becomes president again. The second phase of the exercise is equally critical and will determine NATO's ability to defend its eastern flank. Spanning from mid-February to the end of May, this phase involves complex multi-domain operations covering thousands of kilometers, simulating the kind of warfare NATO might face in the event of a Russian attack.
The exercises will involve up to 80 aerial scenarios, including F-35 fighter jets, helicopters and drones, along with over a thousand combat vehicles, including 166 tanks. The exercise's focus on Poland, the Baltic states and Germany underscores the strategic importance of these regions in potential conflict scenarios.
That would be the first line of defense, because if a potential Russian attack was launched, it would probably go through Poland to Germany, we doubt that it would be in Putin's interest to advance in the Scandinavian countries.
The scale and size of Steadfast Defender 24 is noteworthy, with the last comparable exercise held in 1988 involving 125,000 troops.
Only Trident Juncture 2018 came close with 50,000 participants. The very size of the upcoming exercise emphasizes its symbolic importance, but the question remains whether it can really alleviate European fears. Putin himself spoke out about these exercises, which he called an open threat of aggression against Russia.
He accused the US and Europe of deliberately inducing war-fear psychosis in their population in order to develop a fighting spirit and hatred towards Russia.
European concerns and warnings
Despite the impressive show of force, concerns remain in Europe.
Arms deliveries to Ukraine have decreased, and the head of NATO's military committee, Rob Bauer, warned of the need for the Western arms industry to step up further fuel seizures. The official warnings are more likely to prompt an urgency among European allies to prepare for a wider conflict that goes beyond the current focus on Ukraine.
The head of the Belgian army, Michel Hoffman, indicated the possibility of the opening of a second front in Moldova or the Baltic states by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He believes that Putin could capture Odessa across the Black Sea coast and then continue towards the unrecognized Russian territory in Moldova, Priednostrovlje.
Meanwhile, Sweden's military leadership has sparked public concern by urging citizens to "mentally prepare for war", leading to panic buying of fuel and survival gear in the Scandinavian country. Among the population, there is disbelief that we have come to this situation so quickly, which threatens to escalate and become the largest military conflict in the history of mankind.
Conflicts have started around the world in the last few months since the beginning of the war in Gaza. Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Houthis, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Ukraine and many more countries where the conflict is ongoing or threatens to escalate.