Nato begins biggest military exercise in 60 years in message to Russia

U.S. Soldiers assigned to Bandits Company, 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, relays information to his troops during a squad live-fire exercise at Karliki, Poland, Jan.23, 2024. The 3rd Infantry Division’s mission in Europe is to engage in multinational training and exercises across the continent, working alongside NATO Allies and regional security partners to provide combat-credible forces to V Corps, America’s forward deployed corps in Europe. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Michael Udejiofor)
U.S. Soldiers during a squad live-fire exercise at Karliki, Poland earlier this week. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Michael Udejiofor)

Nato has begun the largest military exercise since the Cold War as the reinvigorated alliance practices its response to a potential invasion from Russia.

The US Navy dock landing ship Gunston Hall left port on Wednesday to mark the first movement for the exercise, officials said

More than 90,000 personnel are participating in the exercise which has been dubbed Steadfast Defender 2024. The primary purpose of the drill is to practice the deployment of troops from outside of Europe (mainly the US) to Eastern Europe in response to an invasion. It is the first defence plan the alliance has drawn up in decades, detailing how it would respond to a Russian attack.

While Nato did not mention Russia by name when it announced the exercises last week, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg made a pointed reference to the Kremlin on Monday when discussing the drills: "We do all of this to ensure that we have the readiness, the preparedness and the forces in place to remove any room for miscalculation or misunderstanding in Moscow about our readiness to protect every inch of Nato territory. And as long as we do that, there will be no attack against the Nato territory."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the exercise was the largest in decades. (Getty)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the exercise was the largest in decades. (Getty)

More than 50 ships from aircraft carriers to destroyers are taking part, as well as more than 80 fighter jets, helicopters and drones and at least 1,100 combat vehicles including 133 tanks and 533 infantry fighting vehicles.

Nato did not mention Russia by name in its initial announcement of the exercises last week. However, its top strategic document identifies Russia as the most significant and direct threat to Nato members' security. The exercise comes at an important moment after Russia's invasion of Ukraine started the deadliest war on European soil in more than 70 years. Since the invasion began Finland joined the alliance and Sweden is expected to join in the near future.

NATO has been carrying out more drills since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AP)
Nato has been carrying out more drills since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AP)

The invasion also reinvigorated many members of the alliance and saw a vast increase in defence spending on the continent as nations supplied weapons to Ukraine and reconsidered their position after Russia's aggression.

The last exercises of a similar size were Reforger - during the Cold War in 1988 with 125,000 participants - and Trident Juncture in 2018 with 50,000 participants, according to Nato.

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What has Russia said?

Responding to the latest exercises, Russia's deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko told the state RIA news agency they marked an "irrevocable return" of the alliance to Cold War schemes.

Russia has reacted angrily to the military build-up of Nato in recent years and criticised Finland and Sweden's decision to join the group. When it was announced Finland and Sweden were planning on joining the alliance Vladimir Putin said he saw "no threat" to Russia from the announcement, but he added, "The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response."

Could conscription return to the UK?

On Wednesday, General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing chief of the general staff (CGS), warned that the current British Army was not large enough for a land war in Europe and said conscription might be necessary. He pointed to allies in eastern and northern Europe "laying the foundations for national mobilisation".

The warning came after defence secretary Grant Shapps in a speech last week said the world is "moving from a post-war to pre-war world" and the UK must ensure its "entire defence ecosystem is ready" to defend its homeland.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has warned the world is
Defence secretary Grant Shapps has warned the world is 'moving from a post-war to pre-war world'. (AP)

The comments were not the first time Sir Patrick has made such a call, speaking in 2022 in the months after the invasion of Ukraine he said "this is our 1937 moment" — a reference to preparations made for the start of the Second World War — and that the British Army should be at "high readiness".

In response to the comments, the then prime minister's official spokesman pushed back against the idea saying: "There is no suggestion of that. The Government has no intention to follow through with that. The British military has a proud tradition of being a voluntary force. There are no plans to change that."