By Thomas Hughes, Editor at Contact Report and Research Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy

Image Credit: Colorado Master Chess

I am an enthusiastic, if generally incompetent, Chess player. After one particularly crushing defeat, in which my pieces were comprehensively routed from a position that I had thought to be ideally set up for a devastating attack, my erstwhile and most frequent opponent patted me on the shoulder and said “You’re not bad, but you sometimes forget that there’s someone else involved in the game.” One must, of course, exercise extreme caution when comparing the practise of international relations with Chess, with its full information, clearly ordained moves, and players whose objective is the terminal defeat of the ‘enemy’. Nevertheless, this phrase stuck with me, and its implications are deeply applicable to signalling in the international arena, and the current engagement between Russia and NATO.

The most straightforward implication is the importance of building awareness of how our moves will be perceived and reacted to, but there is more to it than this. We also need to understand how our moves and signals speak to the ambitions and strategic approach of external actors. Ignoring this risks putting ourselves in a position in which we have limited understanding of the rationale for an opponent’s actions and an inability to predict the potential shapes of their future positions. This uncertainty underlies miscalculation, and miscalculation brings with it an unacceptably high risk of unpredictable costs.

Musing about my performances across the chequered board, I found that I make moves on the assumption that my opponent is perceiving the combinations of pieces in the same way as I do, and that the obvious sequence of moves that I presented them with is also the most obvious course of action to them. Somewhat arrogantly, I also assume that my opponent’s goal will be forced to change to focus on their survival, rather than on my defeat, with a consequent alteration in strategy.

One of the most notable NATO activities in Europe in recent years has been the re-emergence of military exercises, including two iterations of the large-scale TRIDENT JUNCTURE exercises in 2015 and 2018. Canadian troops were heavily involved in both, with 2,000 personnel and ten aircraft contributing to the latter manoeuvre and 1,200 participating in the former, as well as chaperoning official Russian observers. Enhancing warfighting capability is only one facet of these manoeuvres, which are also used to re-shape the political and security environment. Nevertheless, the inherent martiality of manoeuvring large numbers of troops always poses the risk of inadvertently heightening tensions. Consequently, NATO’s military manoeuvres must have parallel aims: material benefit in capability enhancement, and clear signals of intent.

Signalling intent is challenging. Although the concept of ‘costly signalling’ is logically sound, it cannot ensure that the signal sent is the signal received. During table-top exercises in the Cold War, even US personnel ‘playing’ the role of Soviet decision-makers struggled to understand the signals sent through the simulated US actions. This is not to suggest that signalling is without value, but that it must not occur in an information vacuum. While hiding information may in itself be a signal, it can also lead to escalation due to the information gap being filled with pessimistic calculations, particularly in contexts in which trust is limited. Assuming that the strategy does not intend to generate a conflict, avoiding escalation requires the provision of consistent and believable information on intent and the rationale for action. It is possible that this narrative will not be accepted, but it is the only route through which the ‘costly’ component of the signal can bring us closer to the anticipated outcome.

The 2018 iteration of the Polish-led multilateral ANACONDA exercise involved around 12,500 troops in Poland and an additional 5,000 troops conducting manoeuvres in Estonia, Latvia (where Canadian forces lead NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup), and Lithuania, with participation from ten NATO allies. From a western perspective, it was a clear and necessary signal that operated on multiple levels. By sinking costs into the manoeuvre and committing to multilateral operations, the exercise signalled western intent to bolster Poland’s security, as well providing an indication of the strength of the broader NATO alliance. The exercise also signalled NATO military capability, particularly the ability to move forces across long distances. In doing so, ANACONDA 2018 fits snugly within the western goal of maintaining a Europe that presents a coherent and credible opposition to a Russian military threat.

From a Russian perspective, however, such a manoeuvre represents a threat — their 2014 military doctrine document stated clearly that exercises on their border would be seen as such. This does not necessarily manifest in a belief that NATO forces will invade Russia — it is deeply unlikely that anyone but the most ardent nationalist-pessimist would harbour genuine fear of this scenario. However, in the same way that the NATO missile-defence systems in Romania increase Russian vulnerability, NATO’s strong conventional military capability in Europe limits Russia’s range of strategic options.

Exercises are a key part of NATO’s toolkit when performing its essential task of building an alliance that is confident in its ability to provide comprehensive collective defence, founded on trust and mutual support. The frequent presence of Canadian and US troops in NATO exercises in Europe is a strong demonstration of the manoeuvres’ role in building trans-Atlantic unity. The alliance’s strategic approach is rooted in deterrence, openly communicated, and adherence to internationally-agreed rules. However, signalling through the open display of troop movement and capability may be taken as a threat. Remarkably, given that military exercises had been acknowledged as a potential flashpoint in the early years of the Cold War, it was only in 1980 that senior NATO officials ordered the Soviet perception of NATO manoeuvres to be taken into consideration in exercise planning.

The same task is critical today, even if the planning time of large-scale exercises makes it difficult to predict the context in which the exercise will ultimately occur. Nevertheless, NATO’s approach needs to be more holistic than the simple consideration of the potential for short-term Russian miscalculation. Instead NATO must also consider how its military activity speaks to Russian identity, to Russian grand strategic objectives, and how it could influence the range of possible responses. It should not be expected or anticipated that every response can be foreseen, and there must not be panic when unexpected responses occur. By maintaining focus on the actuality and foundation of strategy and goals, dangerously reactionary short-term counter-action can be avoided. In taking this broader perspective into account, NATO will shape the game, rather than just configuring its own pieces.

Contact Report

The CIDP is part of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and is one of Canada’s most active research centres on international security.

Centre for International and Defence Policy

Written by

The CIDP is part of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and is one of Canada’s most active research centres on international security.

Contact Report

The CIDP is part of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and is one of Canada’s most active research centres on international security.

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