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There are old houses whose beams and struts have become so bent and rickety that upon seeing them, architects ask why they didn't collapse long ago. This state is called static instability. Sometimes a house is still standing only because wallpaper holds up the walls.

Something similar can be said about NATO, the supposedly most powerful defensive alliance in history, after the end of its most extensive military maneuvers since the end of the Cold War.

With regard to the deployment of several tens of thousands of troops in Eastern Europe, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany warned about "saber rattling and warlike howling" on the border to Russia. But if the Kremlin's military experts actually felt the military exercises of recent weeks to be a threat, that was quite a generous assessment on their part. The noises that NATO actually made during the Anakonda-16 maneuvers in Poland were more like creaking and grating.

In both political and military terms, the promise of mutual defense seems extremely brittle. But if the credibility of its core promise is doubtful – then is NATO actually still alive? Or has it long been dead behind the political wallpaper?

Viewed from a helicopter, the landscape in northeastern Poland is idyllic. Sailboats trace thin white lines in the waters of the Masurian Lake District. Vacation homes extend along the banks.

But the soldiers aboard a Black Hawk helicopter see something else: problems. A terrain that is difficult to traverse. Rivers that have to be crossed. Marshes in which wheeled vehicles can get stuck. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army Europe, clicks on a button for radio connection and taps on the map on which he is following the flight route: "This geography isn't particularly advantageous for the defenders," he says. Even so, the Poles ask for an assurance from their NATO partners that in an emergency, they will rush to help with unified forces.

But already the planning phase for these exercises showed how limited that solidarity actually is. The Anakonda-16 maneuver is not an official NATO exercise but a national Polish maneuver, even though 25,000 soldiers from 22 NATO countries participated.

"Some countries such as Germany and France considered it too provocative toward Russia to call this a NATO maneuver," Lt. Gen. Hodges says above the noise of the rotor blades.

When asked if that isn't somewhat bizarre, he shrugs.

"The Russians are comparing the maneuver to Operation Barbarossa," he says in reference to the German army's surprise attack against the Soviet Union in 1941. Lt. Gen. Hodge's shrug seems to say that this or that western politician has been overly impressed by Moscow's propaganda.

The Polish government wants the exercise to be understood as a reaction to the extensive maneuvers of the Russian army. NATO says the Russians deployed 95,000 soldiers in offense-orientated scenarios along the border to the military alliance last year. Earlier, a nuclear-rocket attack on Warsaw is said to have been simulated along with attacks against the three Baltic states, under the maneuver name Zapad (Russian for "West"). With a military budget amounting to some 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, the Russian government uses more than twice as much tax revenue for its military forces than do the European NATO states.

The Black Hawk touches down in Węgorzewo, a tiny town less than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. In the inner courtyard of a Polish barracks, the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Carson, Colorado, has set up camp with sphere-shaped, hi-tech tents. The domes shine ocher-yellow in the summer sunshine, just like the Humvees in the parking lot. The desert camouflage announces itself conspicuously in the central European meadow landscape. "Should we repaint them, or what?" jokes an officer.

Inside the main tent, soldiers are crowded around four long tables full of computers. The battle occurs mainly on the screens. "But if there were a power outage or we were hacked," says a press officer, "we still have this here." He points to a card table with labeled red and blue poker chips. They show the tactical situation: The "Bothnians" (as the Russian Army is called here) have invaded Poland from the north and intend to capture the country's oil reserves. Those forces are supported by irregular troops from the south (which could be recognized as Belarus) and by an "information war" (Kremlin propaganda). Already, 100,000 people are fleeing in a southerly direction, on the very roads that NATO troops would have to use to make their way north.

The map with the poker chips represents a seemingly fictitious situation. In fact, it shows a stretch of land that strategists currently consider to be the most vulnerable section of alliance territory: a 120-kilometer-wide strip along the Polish-Lithuanian border from Kaliningrad in the north to Belarus in the south.

Through this corridor, which NATO calls the "Suwalki Gap," would have to pass all the equipment and supplies necessary for defending the Baltic states. The allies would have no more than 36 to 60 hours to get there before Russian troops would take the Estonian and Latvian capitals Tallinn and Riga. This was the recent finding of an elaborate simulation study by RAND, the renowned U.S. think tank.

NATO's only option would be to attempt a reconquest. But RAND predicts that this would end "in disaster." The NATO battalions would be far inferior in numbers to the armored troops of Russia and couldn't even counter with combat tanks. From the highly armed port garrison of Kaliningrad, the Russian Army could keep warships from entering the Baltic and could direct heavy artillery fire against the Suwalki corridor.

"By and large," concludes the RAND study, "NATO infantry wouldn't even be able to retreat. It would be destroyed on the spot."

Neither Lt. Gen. Hodges nor other NATO representatives dispute this analysis.

"It's true – Russia could overrun the Baltic states more quickly than we would be there to defend them," he says.

So wherever he flies, the commander conveys to maneuver participants the need for "speed." Every shortcoming he identifies is immediately transformed into an e-mail that he sends by Blackberry to those who are responsible.

"For God's sake ... " moans the lieutenant general upon hearing what the problem is in the yellow tents of Węgorzewo.