On 26 September, the five-day strategic exercise Kavkaz-2020, on the Kapustin Yar testing range in the Astrakhan Region, ended, resulting in the defeat of a mock enemy by a coalition made up of forces from Russia, Armenia, Belarus, China, Myanmar and Pakistan. Bringing together some 80,000 troops (according to official Russian information) from all contributing nations, the exercise was the largest training event carried out by Russia in 2020, involving 250 battle tanks, 450 armoured vehicles and 200 artillery pieces.
Russia had hoped to include forces from India, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Mongolia and five Central Asian states, plus two de facto two internationally unrecognized quasi-states (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). This move—which went well beyond the officially declared aim of the exercises—was intended to boost Russia’s image as a strong geopolitical broker on the Eurasian continent. Thus, it would be fair to say that the initial/hidden objectives of the exercises combined military and geopolitical agendas.
The Preparatory Phase
Russian preparation for the exercises began long before September and comprised three main stages. During the first, in mid-June, forces from Russia’s Southern Military District—150,000 military personnel, 400 aerial vehicles of various types, over 26,000 pieces of military equipment, and more than 100 vessels of various types from the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla—demonstrated a high level of combat readiness during snap military exercises ordered by president Vladimir Putin. The second stage, at the end of July, involved more than 10,000 military personnel, and took place on testing ranges in Volgograd, Rostov and Astrakhan oblasts, Dagestan and Crimea, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The third stage, launched on 21 August, and described as “special training”, involved some 6,000 personnel and 750 pieces of military equipment, and took place in the same location. Speaking at an official briefing before the launch of the exercises, deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin revealed two important aspects. First, he emphasised the “strictly defensive nature” of the upcoming event. Second, he set out the goal (“assessment of combat readiness of the Russian armed forces in the South-Western flank”) and the key objective (“testing counterterrorism actions”) of Kavkaz-2020.
It is important to note that the exercises went ahead without several important intended participants, which opted not to take part, citing various pretexts: Azerbaijan, India (COVID-19 concerns) and Serbia (which has a formal policy of military neutrality).
The Exercises: Key Elements and Activities
Kavkaz-2020 demonstrated five important aspects.
- The use of experience gained in local/regional conflicts. As noted by the chief of Russia’s General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, “[t]he experience of modern armed conflicts, including the one in the Syrian Arab Republic, was used as its basis”. Specifically, a new combat formation—the so-called “mobile echelon”—was shown in action alongside reconnaissance and fire systems and four main methods of eliminating suicide-bomber vehicles. Experience in the Syrian and Libyan theatres was behind the particular attention to combating cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (see below).
- Emphasis on the use of UAVs. During the exercises three models of drone—Forpost, Orlan-10 and Eleron-3—operating in one group were employed on the Kapustin Yar testing range. Some Russian sources have contended that this was the first use by Russian forces of a swarm of drones against a mock enemy force.
- The special role of the navy. Unlike the Ocean Shield 2020 naval exercises on 3–31 August, the navy did not play a pivotal role during Kavkaz-2020, but its input should not be played down. The limited participation of naval forces, involving more than 20 ships and boats from the Black Sea Fleet, was stipulated by preventive counterterrorist tasks that included the simulation of “[f]rustrating attempts to deliver weapons and supplies to international terrorists on the coast of the Krasnodar Territory”.
- Anti-missile and anti-aircraft warfare showcased massive employment of complexes and defence systems such as the S-400, Buk-M2 and Pantsir-S, primarily used during training at the Ashuluk testing range. Importantly, aside from land-based platforms, operations were carried out at sea, involving the cruiser Moskva, the corvettes Vyshniy Volochek and Orekhovo-Zuyevo, and four missile boats.
- Emphasis on precision strikes, an element almost entirely resting on the forces of the Black Sea Fleet. For instance, during one episode the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine (mainly intended for anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations) launched a Kalibr cruise missile, destroying an on-shore target at a range of 185 kilometres. Similarly, the Bal and Bastion missile systems were used to strike mock enemy forces.
Some preliminary inferences can be drawn about the exercises and developments around them .
First, on the diplomatic front the effects were mixed. On the one hand, Russia managed to assemble an impressive coalition of forces that included—to everyone’s great surprise, given the country’s “permanent neutrality”—Turkmenistan. This has been construed as a sign of Ashgabat’s growing understanding that its relations with Moscow need some serious improvement as one way out of the socio-economic impasse in which the country finds itself as a result of continuous economic crisis. At the same time, Serbia’s decision not to take part has been taken by leading Russian military experts as a worrying sign, implicitly suggesting that Russia’s position in the Balkans is being eroded and that the US may be outmanoeuvring Moscow in this strategic region. Similarly, the inability to involve Azerbaijan (due to the “Armenian factor”) and India (de-facto due to the presence of China and Pakistan, yet officially explained by COVID-19-related concerns) has underscored Russia’s limitations as a potential/prospective moderator.
Second, the final stage of the exercises, culminating in the defeat of the mock enemy forces, clearly demonstrated who are Russia’s (self-perceived) allies in the military-political realm: China, Belarus and Armenia.
Third, contrary to the official statement (“strictly defensive”), the exercises should rather be viewed as training for counter-offensive operations. This was clearly demonstrated during the final stages, when “defence was being transformed into counter-offensive operations”, resulting in a counter-strike by coalition forces.