How great a threat does Russia pose to NATO's eastern flank? Answers to this question are often based on abstract comparisons. Military budgets are compared, as are inventories of soldiers, tanks and rockets. Attention is generally only paid to military exercises when they include tens of thousands of Russian soldiers marching near the borders of the Baltic states or Ukraine, as is likely to happen again in September. But military exercises reveal a lot about the fighting strength of combat forces and, as such, about the potential a country has for forcing its political will onto others. They're like fingerprints.
As the idea developed among our editorial staff a few months ago to compare the maneuver activities of the Russians with NATO, it wasn't a question of proving the alliance's numerical inferiority to Russia on its eastern flank. Moscow has stationed tens of thousands of soldiers in its western military district alone. That's more troops than the three Baltic NATO member states – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – can offer put together. They don't even have their own combat tanks or fighter jets. Like Poland, they have felt massively threatened by their eastern neighbor since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in eastern Ukraine that same year. NATO has since decided on a series of measures to reassure member states located on the trans-Atlantic defense alliance's eastern flank, including the presence of four multinational "battle groups," with around 1,000 soldiers assigned to each, or the brigade-strength Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. The Americans are once again strengthening their presence in Europe and the number of military exercises conducted has also increased in recent years.
But the question our journalists wanted to answer was another important one: How intensively is the alliance practicing for a conventional military conflict? Or posed differently: How great is the "exercise gap" between NATO and Russia?
Finding a satisfying answer to this question requires considerable effort. There are regular news reports about the large exercises conducted by both sides. Studies by a number of research institutes have also analyzed and compared maneuvers in the past. But their work has generally been limited to major exercises. Detailed overviews of maneuvers aren't available to the public if they even exist at all. The data must be assembled from hundreds of pieces like a mosaic.
In recent months, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has reviewed a number of public sources. On the Russian side, we reviewed all English-language press releases from the Russian Defense Ministry that provide information about the activities of the country's armed forces since 2015. There are a few thousand. The information they provide is extensive and, in many cases, detailed. Still, by their very nature, they provide the image that Moscow wants to convey. That image, of course, can be distorted through omissions or exaggerations.