* Russia's more assertive military worries some in West
* Diplomats puzzled by big rise in Russia forces spending
* Moscow probes NATO airspace, holds "aggressive" manoeuvres
* Putin says world is far from being peaceful and safe
By Peter Apps
LONDON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - When NATO forces start a majorexercise in Latvia and Poland this weekend, they will berehearsing how to oust an anonymous invading enemy from afictional region.
For some, however, exercise "Steadfast Jazz" will test howthe Western alliance could deploy rapid reaction forces to itseastern flank - which borders Russia.
A militarily resurgent and swiftly rearming Russia isalarming NATO states that lie close to its territory, chieflythe Baltic States. Other alliance members are simply baffled,wondering why Moscow feels the need to spend vast sums onmeeting a threat from the West they say will never materialise.
NATO stresses that the wargames are not aimed at Russiadirectly, although some officials say part of their point is toreassure eastern member states at a time when Russia is probingNATO airspace with bombers, building warships and conductingever more sophisticated exercises.
From Nov. 2-7, "Steadfast Jazz" will involve about 7,000troops and other personnel including special forces, as well astanks, aircraft and ships. Officially the NATO Response Force isdesigned to operate anywhere in the world.
But in the Baltic States, which once lived under the SovietUnion, the wargames are also a rehearsal for an unlikely butplausible scenario closer to home.
"Russia as a country in the last five years has beenincreasing its assertiveness in the Baltic," Latvian defenceminister Artis Pabriks told Reuters. "'Steadfast Jazz' isimportant to us as these are the first exercises where we reallytrain to defend our territory."
NATO's Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlovesaid the exercise would show the alliance's ability to fightsophisticated wars and defend its territory. Russian monitorswould be invited.
"We have to be prepared for more high end militaryoperations," he said in September, adding that NATO's counter-insurgency experience from Afghanistan was no longer enough.
By "high end" Breedlove meant combatting any possible threatfrom a well-armed state, rather than relatively crudely-armedguerrillas as in the alliance's most recent operations.
Russia's "high end" capability, experts say, is improvingfast and NATO is responding. Apart from "Steadfast Jazz", NATOtraining near Russia recently included the "Brilliant Arrow"fast jet exercise in August in central Norway.
Such activity could antagonise Russia further. PresidentVladimir Putin has long complained that the collapse of theSoviet Union allowed the West to expand too far into Russia'straditional sphere of influence - particularly the former SovietBaltic states.
BOMBER FLIGHTS, NAVAL, GROUND MANOEUVRES
Moscow and Washington have worked together in recent monthson removing Syria's chemical weapons, but strains are clear.
For Putin, a stronger military and more assertive foreignpolicy are central to Russian ambitions. "Ensuring Russia has areliable military force is the priority of our state policy," hesaid earlier this year.
"Unfortunately, the present world is far from being peacefuland safe. Long obsolete conflicts are being joined by new, butno less difficult ones. Instability is growing in vast regionsof the world."
Last year, Russia announced its defence budget would rise byabout 25 percent, pushing spending above that of France andBritain. Moscow says it will spend $700 billion by 2020, hopingto equip at least 70 percent of 1 million active-duty personnelwith modern weapons. That will include 2,300 new tanks, 1,200new helicopters, 15 new surface ships and 28 submarines.
Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies atthe U.S. Naval War College, said Russia wants to regainsomething of its Soviet-era standing in the world. "It isrestoring its conventional capabilities to back up claims togreat power status," he said.
In operations reminiscent of the Cold War, Russian bombersnow periodically approach NATO airspace. In response, Britishfighters scrambled 29 times in 2010-12 while non-NATO Japan andeven neutral Sweden have been on the receiving end of suchmissions.
Latvia says Russian military aircraft have come close toflying over its territory 37 times in 2013 alone, compared withperhaps once or twice a year five years ago. Naval activity hasrisen, including a task force sent to the Arctic in August.
"We've seen an increase in the frequency of Russian militaryactivities and the substantial modernisation of theircapability," General Charles H Jacoby, commander of the U.S.Northern Command, said earlier this year. "While we must strivefor increased cooperation... we must continue to be prepared todemonstrate the intent and the capability to defend ourinterests."
Exercises on land have particularly worried neighbours.Among the largest was September's "Zapad-2013" manoeuvres inBelarus. The Kremlin described these as largely anti-terroristin nature but foreign analysts said they appeared to revolveheavily around conventional war fighting.
CO-OPERATION HOPES, CONFRONTATION FEARS
Not everyone believes Moscow can achieve its ambitions. Aslump in prices for oil and gas, a major source of revenue,could devastate its budget, and the economy is already slowing.
Within the military, bullying, morale problems andcorruption remain rife. Islamist militancy in the Caucasusswallows up resources while some Russian strategists are moreworried about China than the West.
Much of Russia's resources, from fresh water to minerals,are in sparsely populated parts of Siberia within relativelyeasy reach of the Chinese border, while Beijing's militarybudget is growing even faster than Moscow's.
"(There is) a growing fear that Russia's vast naturalresources endowment... is vulnerable if the country lacks themeans to protect it," said Gvosdev.
Budget problems mean most NATO states are cutting defencespending. The handful of Russia's neighbours that can afford toraise expenditure, however, are doing so. As early as 2007,Norway announced it would expand its military and move much ofit to new bases nearer the increasingly contested Arctic.
Poland is also in the midst of its biggest ever increase inmilitary spending, earmarking $43 billion over the next decadeto buy Western systems. Sweden is buying patrol boats.
Western officials say their priority remains to work withRussia. NATO jets have also trained with Russian counterparts oncounter-terrorism exercises, while NATO warships have visitedRussian ports. This month's NATO-Russia summit in Brussels sawagreement on further co-operation.
In mainstream NATO thinking, Russian behaviour such as the"Zapad-2013" exercise is more puzzling than alarming, althougheastern members cling to Article 5 of North Atlantic treaty -which obliges members to help any ally that comes under attack.
"The very aggressive posture during... Zapad caused muchconcern among the Baltic states for whom Article 5 reallymatters," said one senior Western official on condition ofanonymity. "However, the considered view is that the governmentof Russia does not pose a threat."
Another NATO diplomat told Reuters he believed there waslittle doubt Moscow was preparing its military for potentialconflicts with well-armed nations.
"That has a lot of us scratching our heads and thinking:why?" the diplomat said, adding that NATO states had made clearthey had no ambitions to expand eastward. "Why in the worldwould you actually be arming yourself for a conflict with us?Isn't that all a monumental waste of resources?"
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