- Russia is again criticising NATO about military exercises after President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- While Russians have commented on that meeting, US intelligence and military officials appear to know little about what was discussed or agreed to.
- Trump hinted before the meeting that US participation in NATO military exercises could be on the table.
Russia repeated its longstanding criticisms of US and NATO military exercises on the alliance’s eastern flank this week, rebuking the US for a land and sea exercise in the Black Sea region that involved Ukrainian personnel.
At a briefing on July 12, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said this year’s Sea Breeze exercise involving US Marines and sailors – which began July 9 and ended Tuesday –was seen by Moscow as “an attempt to once again provoke tension in southeastern Ukraine and in the entire Black Sea region.”
“Countries involving Ukraine in dangerous playing-with-fire games and constantly accusing Russia of threatening regional stability shall be held responsible for possible negative consequences,” the spokeswoman said.
This year’s Sea Breeze exercise, the 18th iteration, “is designed to enhance interoperability among participating nations and strengthen regional security by focusing on a variety of warfare areas,” according to US officials.
The exercise started and concluded with ceremonies in Ukraine, which is not a NATO member but cohosted the exercises with the US. Air, land, sea, and amphibious forces from 17 countries took part, including Ukraine, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Poland.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has increased its presence in Eastern Europe since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion in Ukraine, deploying multinational battle groups and stepping up military exercises along the alliance’s eastern flank.
Russia officials have repeatedly condemned that activity.
In February 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin decried what he said were NATO efforts to provoke conflict with Russia under the guise of a “newly declared official mission to deter Russia.”
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also told the Munich Security Conference that month that “NATO’s expansion has led to an unprecedented level of tension over the last 30 years in Europe,” referring to NATO’s addition of Eastern European and former Soviet states in the decades since the end of the Cold War.
Russian officials leveled similar charges at NATO when the massive Saber Strike exercise started earlier this year in Poland and the Baltic states, with a Kremlin spokesman saying, “When NATO infrastructure directly approaches our borders, this certainly does not contribute to security and stability on the continent in any way.”
US Army Europe officials stressed that Saber Strike 18 was “not a provocation of Russia but an exercise with our allies” and said it was “what normal deterrence business looks like.”
Doubts about the US’s longstanding participation in NATO exercises have grown more pronounced this month.
While at a NATO summit last week, a few days before his meeting with Putin – which included a one-on-one session between the two leaders – President Donald Trump was asked whether ending NATO military exercises in the Baltic States was possible.
“Perhaps we’ll talk about that,” Trump said at the time of these exercises, which are at the heart of NATO’s deterrent message to Russia. Should Trump end US participation, countries in Europe could continue the drills, but they would need to be done under different leadership, as the US could block them from being labelled NATO exercises.
European countries would see ending those exercises as a major concession to Moscow, but Trump has shown his willingness to make such a move by suspending US-South Korea military exercises – which Trump labelled “very provocative” – after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.
‘We are completely in the dark’
In the days since Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, Russian officials have hinted that deals were reached.
On Wednesday, Russia’s ambassador to the US said Trump had made “important verbal agreements” with Putin on arms control and other issues.
In a speech on Thursday, Putin said specific “useful agreements” had been made. In that speech, he also warned NATO against closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia and cautioned against new bases and military infrastructure near Russian borders. “We will respond appropriately to such aggressive steps, which pose a direct threat to Russia,” he said.
Top US officials, however, appear to be on the outside looking in.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, and the US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr., have said little or nothing about the meeting. No mention of any agreements was made at a Tuesday briefing by the US assistant secretary of state for Europe and Russia, Wess Mitchell.
“There is no word on agreements,” a senior US official told The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser. “There is no information on the US side about any agreements.”
A US ambassador in Europe who has deep experience with Russia told Glasser no briefings had been given nor any talking points distributed in the days since the talks.
“Nothing,” the ambassador said. “We are completely in the dark. Completely.”
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