Russia's military exercises are way bigger than NATO's

If military strength and ability was determined solely by the number of soldiers participating in military exercises, Russia would be able to steamroll through NATO without much of a second thought.

Since 2013, Russia has launched a number of military exercises with troop numbers regularly surpassing the 100,000 personnel mark. In comparison, the largest NATO member exercise during the same time frame took part in Norway in 2014 and had 16,000 personnel.

The following chart from The Atlantic Council sums up the vast numerical difference between Russian and NATO exercises.

This chart is not meant to be exhaustive, and it does not list the snap military exercises that Russia has recently undertaken near the Baltics. But it does illustrate a general Russian trend: for Moscow, bigger is better as far as shows of military strength go.

The size and timing of the Russian drills is significant. For instance, a February 26 to March 3, 2014 drill in Western and Central Russia functioned as a distraction as Russian troops moved into and effectively annexed Crimea.

Large-scale Russian drills that June featured 65,000 personnel and acted as a crucial show of strength. Those came just as Russia escalated the conflict in eastern Ukraine by providing pro-Moscow separatists with tanks and heavy military equipment.

Russia Serbia Military Drill November 2014 TroopsMarko Djurica/ReutersRussian paratroopers take part in a military drill.

The military exercise in December 2014 could function as a Russian show of force against Lithuania and Poland. The exercise was held in the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders the two states. Russian exercises like this might be one reason Lithuania is going to reintroducemilitary conscriptionstarting in 2016.

In response to these Russian drills and the situation in Ukraine, NATO has sought to reassure its member states through frequent military exercises. But in most cases NATO drills are only a fraction as large as Russia’s.

Ultimately, though, military strength is better measured through financial resources, training, and experience. In this regard, Russia is still behind the NATO alliance.

NATO encompasses the majority of the states in Europe and North America. The US alone far outpaces the rest of the world in military spending. Considering Moscow would be at a huge disadvantage if it ever fought a war with the NATO states, its massive-scale military drills may be nothing more than bluster or a crude sort power projection.

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