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British Ghurkas attend the multinational NATO exercise Saber Strike in Adazi, Latvia, June 11, 2015. (Reuters)

War between Russia and the NATO alliance should be unthinkable. But a new study of recent military exercises suggests both powers are preparing for just that possibility.

Researchers at a European think tank warned that while there was no evidence that either side intended to go to war, the increasing frequency and size of military exercises on both sides of the NATO-Russia border heighten the possibility of an unplanned incident that could spark a wider conflict (Read the report PDF). The finding raises the spectre of a continent-wide clash of conventional armies, the sort not seen since Russia and the Western allies combined to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

The think tank, the European Leadership Network, called for increased communication between the two sides about the timing and location of military exercises, and for politicians to re-examine the “benefits and dangers” of such heightened military activity. Canadian troops have participated in several recent NATO exercises staged in countries that border Russia.

The unpredictability of the situation in Eastern Europe was highlighted Tuesday when a Dutch-led team of investigators said they had discovered fragments of a Russian-made missile system amid the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine after being shot out of the sky last summer. The Dutch team eventually negotiated with the Kremlin-backed rebels who control access to the site in the war-torn Donetsk area, but the Dutch and Australian governments – the two countries with the largest number of citizens among the victims – also contemplated sending special-forces troops to secure the crash area.

Joint tactical exercise of the 26th separate motorized rifle brigade on March 20, 2015, Pskov, Russia. (Russia Ministry of Defence)

The recovery of the missile fragments adds to the bulk of evidence implicating pro-Russian fighters in the downing of the passenger jet, which killed 298 people. Moscow, which accuses the Ukrainian military of shooting MH17 out of the sky, recently used its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to prosecute the case.

In a statement, the Dutch-led team said the fragments, believed to be from a Buk surface-to-air missile, “are of particular interest to the criminal investigation” although “at present the conclusion cannot be drawn that there is a causal connection between the discovered parts and the crash of flight MH17.”

Tensions in Europe have been near Cold War highs for 18 months now, ever since pro-Western protesters toppled a Kremlin-supported government in Ukraine. That was followed by Russia’s snap annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the outbreak of a war in the Donetsk region pitting Kremlin-supported separatists against a Western-backed Ukrainian army.

While fighting in eastern Ukraine has ebbed in recent months – before spiking up suddenly in recent days – researchers from the European Leadership Network found that both Russia and NATO have used military drills this year to practise waging war against the other side.

Russia began its exercises in mid-March with a mock alert on the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s Far North, near the country’s border with Norway. That was quickly followed by the scrambling of fighters from an Arctic air base and a drill simulating an attack on the warships of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

Allied forces practise amphibious assault near Ustka, northern Poland, on 17 June 2015 (NATO)

Over the next six days, the exercises rapidly grew in size and scope, with “alerts” spreading to the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, and then the main Central Military District and the country’s strategic bombers. Eventually, some 80,000 soldiers, 12,000 pieces of heavy equipment, 80 warships and 220 aircraft were involved, including several units in the the Kaliningrad exclave, which sits between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, as well as forces that were mobilized to repel “saboteurs” on Sakhalin Island, in Russia’s Far East.

NATO answered in June with a series of exercises collectively known as Allied Shield that included the first deployment of the alliance’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which was assembled as part of NATO’s response to rising nervousness among member states sharing a border with Russia. NATO also carried out major naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, plus drills that saw 15,000 troops deployed to the Baltic States and Poland. Some 120 Canadian soldiers, as well as the frigate HMCS Fredericton, took part in the exercises.

The European Leadership Network, which is headed by ex-foreign and defence ministers from 14 countries, including Russia, concluded that the scale of the Russian exercises indicated it “could only have been a scenario simulating a war with the United States and/or NATO.”

Similarly, the nature of the NATO drills, which focused on both countering the kind of infiltration tactics used by Russian forces last year in seizing the Crimean Peninsula, as well as repelling a large conventional force, “leaves Russia as the only possible adversary.”

“The exercises are adding fuel to the current crisis, and they add to the worst-case scenario thinking,” said Lukasz Kulesa, one of the authors of the report. “When you had the Russian exercises in Kaliningrad last year, there were voices in the Baltic States who felt this was a rehearsal for an operation against them. It’s adding to the anxiety we have right now in the Russia-West relationship.”

Members of BALFOR, NATO Baltic Force aboard a C-17 military transport aircraft bound for exercise Trident Joust in Romania.

Both the Russian and NATO exercises were based on scenarios in which the other side attacked first. But Mr. Kulesa said the size of the drills, and their proximity to the borders between Russia and the West, increase the likelihood of an incident, such as a collision between two fighter jets, that could push the two sides to the brink of war.

The nature of the Russian drills indicated that Moscow believes “even a limited war with NATO would grow into a full-scale war sooner or later,” Mr. Kulesa said, noting that Russia had also stepped up the training schedule of its nuclear forces.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst based in Moscow, said the lack of communications between the two sides and a “de facto downgrading” of diplomatic ties between Russia and the West made it easy to envisage how a small conflict could quickly grow into a big one.

“The lines of communication are closing and everyone is beefing up for an eventuality that could be very, very unpleasant,” he said. Mr. Felgenhauer added that, for now, the two sides were just posturing, “but posturing is the path to war. It always has been.”

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