Does NATO Drills STEADFAST DEFENDER 2024 Worry Russia?

Written by Anton Khimiak, analyst HWAG/UCMC

The NATO military exercises “Steadfast Defender-2024” commenced at the end of January 2024. Within the Alliance, the training has been touted as “unprecedented”. Although the Steadfast Defender manoeuvres have been a regular part of NATO exercises since 2021, this year’s operations caused quite a stir in the Russian segment of the Internet. In this article, we will examine whether NATO is portrayed inaccurately by the Kremlin’s media, how the Russian government is addressing persistent concerns regarding the “aggressive NATO bloc”, and examine the reasons behind Moscow’s simultaneous military exercises with Iran and China.

The training has attracted attention and concern, as evidenced by a significant rise in search queries for “NATO exercises” on the Google Trends graph (attached below). Russian propaganda characterised the Alliance’s training as a “rehearsal of the Third World War”, “a new round of escalation”, and “a provocation”.

Graph of requests in the Google search engine according to data from the Google Trends service

The shrieking reaction of Kremlin officials

Steadfast Defender 2024 is NATO’s largest exercise since the end of the Cold War, involving around 90,000 military personnel from NATO member states and Sweden. The exercise tests the Alliance’s ability to rapidly deploy forces and assess its new defence plans.

The extensive military exercises caused concern among Kremlin officials and led to a surge of messages from propagandists at all levels accusing NATO of “provocation”. The Russian media largely referenced the statement made by the head of the NATO military committee, Admira Rob Bauerl, to support their own claims: “We must realise that the fact that we live in peace is a given. And that’s why we [NATO forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia.”

According to the legend of Kremlin talking heads, Bauer’s statement affirms the so-called aggressive nature of the exercises. Maria Zakharova, the official spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mentioned this in her response to the news about the exercise: “This step [military exercises] is consciously aimed at aggravating the situation, increases the risks of military incidents and can lead to tragic consequences for Europe.”

At the same time, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Alexander Grushko, picked up and expanded the propaganda reaction. “The interests of European security today are of little concern to those who manage NATO; for them, the main thing is to keep this instrument of American influence afloat in the already lost struggle for the preservation of Western hegemony in the world.” Such statements instantly shift the audience’s attention to the classic narratives for the Kremlin about “Western hegemony” and “NATO as a tool of the United States.”

Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, echoes the Kremlin’s official stance on the Alliance. His statement on January 31, 2023, reiterates the Russian mantra about “moving to the borders of Russia”: “Appropriate measures for this [defence of the Russian Federation] are constantly being taken – especially against the background of how the Alliance has been continuously moving its military infrastructure to our borders for several decades borders”.

Peskov: “Russia considers NATO exercises a threat and is taking measures. The alliance was created for confrontation with Moscow”, – TASS

All the statements above indicate the heightened focus of the Putin regime on exercises designed for multiple objectives. The politicians’ violent reactions aimed to garner global attention to these exercises and the chance to be featured in international media. One of the statements we reviewed was published by Reuters, titled “Russia says NATO’s Steadfast Defender exercises mark a return to Cold War schemes.”

An interesting element of the Russian response to the exercises is their assertion that they heighten the likelihood of “provocations.” This narrative is intended to establish a pretext in case Russia provocatives the Alliance. 

HWAG analysts previously published an article on Russian provocations against NATO. During Russian military drills, HWAG analysts observed that most provocations against the Baltic and Scandinavian countries took place. It is likely that Russia will attempt to leverage “Steadfast Defender – 2024” to rationalise its risky border manoeuvres.

Nuclear blackmail

In addition to the official position of the Russian side, propaganda tries to influence its population through networks of patriotic “Z-telegram channels”. Their position is often much more radical than the official one because it is aimed primarily at Russian citizens and operates with messages that, from the Kremlin’s point of view, are inappropriate to spread internationally.

Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev heads the “Hawks” team. In his classic manner, he declared: “…given the difference in our military capabilities, we will simply have no choice. The answer will be asymmetric. Ballistic and cruise missiles with special warheads will be used to protect the territorial integrity of our country. And this is the same notorious Apocalypse. The end of everything.”

Fostering hopes for a nuclear arsenal of the Russian Federation is a cornerstone of the ideology of the Z-patriots, which is used to encourage their population and intimidate the West. Interestingly, a game based on underestimating one’s strength is entering the arena here. Propagandists claim that Russia lacks the resources and military strength for a conventional war against NATO, which they argue is why the Kremlin may resort to nuclear weapons.

The same viewpoint is disseminated on Russian state media by less prominent propagandists. For instance, Sergey Strokan, a “international journalist,” wrote a long piece that RussiaToday later disseminated, discussing NATO training as a potential “dress rehearsal for war with Russia.” This material aims to heighten the level of tension and fear regarding a possible “Great War with the West.” 

“In Brussels, they do not realise that the situation may pass the point of no return when everything will turn into a big war”, – RT

An alternative vision 

In the network of Russian patriotic telegram channels, the chatter regarding NATO exercises is raging. Most are so-called military correspondents and analysts (you can read our article about them here). They are primarily responsible for providing commentary on the war between Russia and the “collective West” in the context of the war against Ukraine, presenting their analysis as objective. The “experts” provided outright fakes and mechanical assistance to support the Kremlin’s official positions during the extensive Alliance exercises.

As an example of telegrams, the “Elder Edda” channel (567,000 subscribers) writes: “The results of the large-scale NATO Steadfast Defender exercises, which should begin in February and continue until May this year, are unlikely to be very encouraging for the Alliance: the multi-year stagnation of military spending has seriously undermined combat power of NATO armies”. Then, there are various explanations for why the Alliance is in an unusable state. Starting with the state of the industry and ending with a general idea of the state of the economies of the Alliance member countries, the propagandist comes to a conclusion: “The biggest mistake for us will be to think that “they will not succeed” in these conditions.”

Initially, these arguments support criticism of the Russian leadership. The primary objective of criticism is to allocate resources to enhance the efficiency of the Russian military.

Another military columnist, “The vision of the future” (190,000 subscribers), makes ridiculous assumptions: “During the entire 5 months of the training, NATO officers will circulate on the LCC [line of combat confrontation] of Ukraine and conduct live fire and tactical manoeuvres as part of the SOF of the AFU, the Air Force of the AFU and airmobile brigades”. The narrative about the participation of NATO officers in the war on the side of Ukraine is not new. The Russians have often used it to justify strikes on civilian infrastructure and residential areas where, according to propaganda, NATO troops are “located”. 

Furthermore, the publication greatly overestimated the number of military personnel expected to take part in the exercises. There was also a version concerning the upkeep of the “Balto-Black Sea sanitary corridor from Vilnius to Odesa”. These fabrications are intended to depict NATO as a hostile entity poised to launch an attack on the Russian Federation.

Drills as a response

Russia is attempting to strengthen its position in the global sphere by enhancing connections with other authoritarian governments. Following the NATO military exercises, the Iranian mass media promptly reported the start of joint naval exercises with Russia and China. This is the third cycle of these exercises, which are likely to continue on an annual basis.

The objective is to enhance the efficiency of combined naval operations, encompassing both military and rescue missions. The manoeuvers will occur in the Gulf of Oman, essentially transforming into exercises aimed at gaining control of the Persian Gulf. International observers view these exercises as the autocracies’ reaction to the US and its allies’ actions against the Yemeni Houthis and NATO exercises in Europe.

“Iran announced joint naval exercises with China and Russia”, – TASS

Repetitio est mater studiorium

Repetition is the mother of learning.  Kremlin propagandists of all levels have learned this saying very well. 

Therefore, Russia’s reaction to NATO’s Steadfast Defender 2024 exercise is a compilation of traditional narratives about an “aggressive Alliance.” Among the international audience, Russia tries to maintain the image of a “victim”. Russian propaganda portrays Moscow’s actions as a response to the Alliance’s exercises. Allegedly, the Kremlin is forced to constantly raise its imaginary stakes, including in the sphere of nuclear weapons. Another frequently used scenario is joint exercises with allied autocracies Iran and China, through which Moscow reinforces the fake allusion of a global anti-Western front.

As for the domestic audience, the narrative about the “inevitability” of war fuels the cult of “victoriousness” among ordinary Russians. This, in turn, mobilises the population of the Russian Federation for a “people’s war” in which it is necessary to confront the West. In such a coordinate system, Putin’s regime turns into a “talisman” from NATO.