NATO Puts on a Show of Force in the Shadow of Russia’s War

About 90,000 NATO troops have been training in Europe this spring for the Great Power war that most hope will never come: a clash between Russia and the West with potentially catastrophic consequences.

In Estonia, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Liberty, N.C., jumped out of planes alongside soldiers from Colchester Garrison in Essex, Britain, for “forcible entry” operations. In Lithuania, German soldiers arrived as a brigade stationed outside Germany on a permanent basis for the first time since World War II.

And on the A4 autobahn in eastern Germany, a U.S. Army captain and his Macedonian counterpart rushed toward the Suwalki Gap — the place many war planners predict will be the flashpoint for a NATO war with Russia — hoping the overheated radiator on their Stryker armored combat vehicle wouldn’t kill the engine.

All are part of what is supposed to be a tremendous show of force by NATO, its largest since the start of the Cold War, that is meant to send a sharp message to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that his ambitions must not venture beyond Ukraine.

But it is also a preview of what the opening beats of a modern Great Power conflict could look like. If NATO and Russia went to war, American and allied troops would initially rush to the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — NATO’s “Eastern Flank”— to try to block penetration by a Russian force.

How that war would end, and how many people might die, is a different story. Tens of millions of people were killed in World War II. This time, the stakes have never been higher. Mr. Putin has brought up the potential for nuclear war several times since Russia invaded Ukraine more than two years ago.

National security officials are making plans for cyberwarfare, too, including how to defend U.S. and NATO interests against a possible cyberattack on public infrastructure.

But a European continental ground war has seemed far more possible since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago.

“This exercise changes the calculus for our adversaries — that’s the real power of this,” General Williams said. Mr. Putin, he said, “is watching this and saying, ‘Hmm, maybe I need to think twice here.’”

Russia’s war in Ukraine infuses almost every movement of the exercises, which began in January and will continue through May. It is why some of the American troops experimented with commercial drones that they could weaponize by fixing with explosives, to see how to counter such tactics, much as Russian troops have had to learn how to defend against Ukraine’s use of store-bought drones that have been MacGyvered with explosives.

It is also why the overheated Stryker carrying the two American and Macedonian captains looks almost exactly like all of the other Strykers, with the exception of its lighter machine gun.

In Ukraine, several senior Russian military leaders have been killed. The Kremlin has confirmed seven; Ukraine says 13.

Military officials said that on the battlefield, the Russian top brass made themselves conspicuous. They often appeared rooted in the same place, American military officials said, instead of moving around. Sometimes several command vehicles were hooked together with antennas next to them, almost advertising, one military official said, the presence of Russian generals and officers.

NATO and American military officers don’t want to make the same mistake.

“I think that what we found is that our command and control needs to be more survivable,” said Col. Robert S. McChrystal, commander of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is based in Vilseck, Germany, near the Czech border. “We need to be more mobile, and we also need to gain dispersion.”

Standing in a field at an army barracks in Poznan, Poland, and wearing the black Stetson that is customary for the 2nd Cavalry, Colonel McChrystal cut a figure both commanding and incongruous. Like many U.S. military officers, his speech was peppered with military jargon. Unlike many, he frequently interrupted himself, sometimes midsentence, to explain what he meant.

“Now what does that mean?” he said. “Grouping up, as we saw — as everyone saw in the war — does not work. So, can we do things like be in smaller elements that make it harder to locate our command-and-control nodes, so they can last longer?”

Officers with Colonel McChrystal’s regiment now seek to blend in, when they can, with the environment and with their troops.

In some cases, that has even meant using local cellphones instead of big cumbersome military communications devices like hand-held radios operating on frequencies that identify them as military.

This wasn’t an issue during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the Taliban and insurgents didn’t have the satellites and spy drones they needed to find battlefield command-and-control nodes.

But Russia has them. That is why during a recent training exercise at the military base at Hohenfels, in southern Germany, more than 70 percent of the command and control were far away — some of them as far back as in the continental United States.

Fox 66, the Stryker carrying the captains, was the command-and-control vehicle for the four-day road-march part of the exercise that made its way to Suwalki, Poland, from Vilseck.

To the untrained eye, all of the military-green armored vehicles looked as though they had the same array of guns and tactical equipment.

But Fox 66 was mounted with a lighter machine gun. In a firefight, it would not be on the front line; it would be directing operations from the back, so it does not need the armor-piercing penetration power of the .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the other vehicles. The two guns are close to indistinguishable from the air.

Inside Fox 66, Capt. Milos Trendevski, fresh from Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, contorted his six-foot frame around the flak jackets, backpacks, rations, guns and equipment crammed inside the vehicle as it made its way toward Poland. The Americans in the vehicle carried language translation devices, but Captain Trendevski didn’t need one.

“We need to see how the U.S. Army does marches like this so our doctrine can be the same,” Captain Trendevski said in English in an interview inside the Stryker.

Just a few inches from him, Capt. Matt Johnson, commander of the Stryker unit, kept up a constant stream of worried questions.

“She burning hot?” he asked the driver, Specialist Sean McGarity.

“225, Sir,” came the answer.

“Slow down a little, see if it goes down.”

Specialist McGarity slowed down and the engine cooled off, and a collective sigh seemed to exhale inside the Stryker.

The Suwalki Gap is a 65-mile, sparsely populated stretch of land straddling Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the Estonian president at the time, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, came up with the name “Suwalki Gap” to highlight for NATO officials the area’s vulnerability. His move worked: Western military officials quickly adopted the phrase.

Western military officials believe the Suwalki Gap is likely to be the first territory that Moscow would try to take. Russian forces in Kaliningrad, assisted by Russia’s ally Belarus, could move in, isolating the Baltic countries if successful.

The road march is supposed to test how quickly NATO can get troops to the Suwalki Gap.

Captain Johnson said his Stryker, when not overheating, could traverse the 750 miles to Suwalki from Vilseck, where the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment is based, in under two days, but the regiment would lose some vehicles along the way if they tried to travel at the top Stryker speed of 70 m.p.h. A more reasonable speed, he said, is 50 m.p.h.

But such marches often take longer than predicted. It took Fox 66 and the other Strykers in Captain Johnson’s unit more than five hours to get to the Polish border from the German city Frankenberg, in the eastern state Saxony, a trip that was supposed to take three hours.

The road march culminated with a live-fire exercise in a training area near Suwalki, with 1,800 2nd Cavalry troops joining 2,600 troops from nine other countries to establish what the military called an “enhanced forward presence” to protect NATO’s Eastern Flank. The troops blew up pop-up targets and seized territory. American Apache helicopters made passes and gave covering fire, while, from an even higher altitude, Polish F-16 and Italian F-35 fighter jets conducted airstrikes.

NATO’S ability to “bring together these seemingly disparate units from different nations to conduct something so complex is what sets us apart,” said Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Europe and Africa. It was, he said, a demonstration of “combined arms” maneuvering.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has been able to do combined arms, where all parts of a maneuver force — air, land and, sometimes, sea — coordinate and work in concert. Tanks and artillery, and even airstrikes, hit a target before infantry soldiers go in.

General Williams, the NATO land forces commander, said that in the past, such exercises did not name the enemy — there was just a fictitious opponent.

Not so this year. For the first time, “we now, in this year, are actually fighting an exercise against the Russians,” he said. “We fight against our potential adversary.”

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