John Stillion, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, flew reconnaissance aircraft during the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. He remembers military exercises were just like the real thing, including occasional casualties.
"There were a lot of accidents because it's inherently dangerous to fly aircraft really fast low to the ground," Stillion said. "Sliding down ropes out of helicopters, there are times when people slip and fall."
These joint military exercises were designed to remind the former Soviet Union that the U.S. military was prepared for a confrontation, he added.
"There was something of the sense of we are operating here, so you know we are here, and you don't think that you can come here," Stillion said. "It was deterrence."
Military maneuvers can be a prelude to war, or just saber-rattling to let the other guy think twice before getting involved. In fact, some analysts consider that 1983 war games led by NATO called "Able Archer" led the superpowers closer to annihilation than anytime since the 1963 Cuban missile crisis.
In previous years, military moves by the former Soviet Union helped destablilize restive populations in Berlin in 1958, and in Poland during the 1980-81 Solidarity uprisings.
Deterrence or provocation, it’s not clear what Russia's motives are for its military maneuvers last week along the border with Ukraine that involve tens of thousands of land and air units. For their part, NATO forces are conducting separate moves of their own.
"I don't think anybody would dispute Russia is sending a message," Thompson said. "Sometimes it helps to be ambiguous. There's no question that maneuvers along Ukraine's border are a warning."