The increase in the scale and number of military exercises by Russian and NATO is making armed conflict in Europe more likely, a think tank has warned.
Ian Kearns, director of the London-based European Leadership Network, said that war games "are contributing to a climate of mistrust" that has "on occasion become the focal point for some quite close encounters between the NATO and Russian militaries."
Kearns is a co-author of a study which looks in detail at two military exercises held this year by Russia and NATO, which are deeply at odds over Moscow's interference in Ukraine. He found signs that "Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia."
The exercises "can feed uncertainty" and heighten the risk of "dangerous military encounters," the study said.
Relations between Russia and the West have been severely strained by Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and what NATO says is direct Russian military support for separatists in a war that has killed more than 6,500 people in eastern Ukraine.
Concerns about Russia have prompted NATO to plan to set up six command centers in Eastern Europe, beef up its rapid-reaction force, and create a 5,000-member spearhead force capable of deploying within two days if needed.
Russia has recalibrated its military goals toward the transatlantic alliance, which it accuses of approaching its borders.
The ELN study said NATO is planning around 270 exercises this year, while Russia has announced 4,000 drills at all levels.
The Russian exercise in March involved 80,000 personnel, while NATO's Allied Shield in June mobilized 15,000 people from 19 NATO countries and three partner states.
NATO criticized the report, saying that it "misleadingly puts NATO and Russian exercises on par."
"The scale and scope of Russia’s exercises are far beyond anything the alliance is doing and they are increasing tensions across the region," NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said.
In addition to pointing to the far larger number of drills planned by Russia, Romero said that "Russia has incorporated nuclear and nuclear-capable forces in its recent exercises."
"NATO does not seek confrontation with Russia," she said. "For two decades, we have tried to build a cooperative relationship with Russia. But Russia has changed borders by force, supports separatists in Ukraine, and threatens to base nuclear missiles close to alliance borders."
The increased presence of NATO troops in eastern alliance members is meant "not to provoke Russia, but to enhance the defense of our allies."
The Russian exercise studied by ELN in March involved 80,000 personnel, while NATO's Allied Shield exercise in June mobilized 15,000 people from 19 NATO countries and three partner states.
The study said NATO and Russia should communicate better on plans to hold military drills to lessen the risk of incidents. It recommended limiting exercises in border areas.
NATO said it is "already well ahead of the recommendations in the ELN report."
"We have taken new initiatives to keep political and military channels of communication with Russia open," Romero said, adding that the alliance announces its exercises months in advance and opens them to observers, including from Russia.
The study said the exercises showed what each side views as its most vulnerable points. For NATO, it's Poland and the Baltic states, while for Russia concerns are more numerous and include the Arctic, Crimea, and border areas with NATO members Estonia and Latvia.
The think tank offered a few ideas to try to defuse tensions, including for governments to examine the need for more restraint in the size and scenarios of future exercises.
"History is full of examples of leaders who think they can keep control of events, and events have a habit of taking on a momentum and dynamic of their own," said Kearns.
With reporting by Reuters and Bloomberg