The ancient Roman rulers preserved control over the masses (the plebeians) using panem et circenses (bread and circus). That model doesn’t fit Russian traditions and the policy of President Vladimir Putin, even if he shares similar ambitions with Roman emperors. Russian bread and circus, illustratively exemplified by fridges and TV-sets, are in conflict with each other once again, just as in the “good old times”. Putin’s model is certainly about potestatem et inimicus (power and enemy).
The Kremlin needs a powerful foreign enemy to be blamed for Russia’s mishaps and misdeeds, suspected of conspiring to change the regime in Moscow, and even accused of posing direct threats to Russia’s security, defence and territorial integrity. The West (US, NATO and the EU) is Russia’s adversary of necessity and convenience following the logic of the Cold War, not China or the Islamic world, which actually cause the Russian leaders to be concerned about the future. The image of the Foe is depicted around the clock on a global scale by Kremlin’s propaganda channels by disseminating countless official distortions and lies. However, what makes us, the Europeans, most anxious, is the increasingly aggressive anti-Western mood of the Russian propaganda that has reached levels unseen even during the Soviet era. The internal purpose of this daily paranoiac display seems to be the brainwashing of ordinary Russians, the fomentation of anti-Western hysteria and consolidation of the nation around Putin’s regime. The Russian people are therefore being prepared by the authorities to accept increasing hardships and sacrifices, and most worryingly, to support the Kremlin in virtually any action it takes against the Foe that is justified as the defence of Russia’s vital interests and/or its integrity (uprightness and honour).
The Kremlin has launched, after the careful study of the lessons learned from its aggression against Georgia in August 2008, a major programme to modernize the Russian armed forces. President Putin, once shocked by the drowning of the nuclear submarine Kursk (K-141) in August 2000 and determined to rebuild Russia’s military might, ordered radical and massive changes in the structure, control and command of the armed forces, increased the mobility of its forces and the interoperability between all branches, the professionalization of its personnel, the rapid modernization of armaments and equipment, and the conduct of increasingly larger military exercises in order to test the readiness of the armed forces and the progress achieved so far. It goes without saying that the armed forces of all countries should conduct regularly exercises, just as athletes train themselves, to be in good shape and improve their performance. However, in the case of Russia, military exercises have already reached a scale comparable to the peak of the Cold War. That, combined with Kremlin’s assertive propaganda, Russia’s speedy militarization, overall confrontation with the West and continued aggression against Ukraine, constitutes a seemingly lethal cocktail that has made opinion leaders and analysts1 wonder if Russia is actually preparing for a large scale war.
The most important state matters for Russia’s power and prestige, that may be visualized even on old-fashioned maps, like gas pipelines and large movements of troops, are directly controlled by President Putin, a man known to be macho, stubborn and audacious. In October 2008, he directed the then Minister of Defence Anatoly Serdyukov to launch the modernization plan of the armed forces, and prepare the first large scale military exercises that took place the following year, not at all incidentally in the direction of the West. Increasingly larger exercises have taken place every year, in all Russian military districts (also in the Southern, Central, Eastern, and recently in the Arctic MD), on a rotational basis, but I will concentrate mostly on those occurring towards the West, which is of greater interest to Estonia and its allies in the Nordic-Baltic region.
Zapad-2009 was a Russian-Belorussian strategic-operational exercise that exceeded by far any military drills by these countries since the end of the Cold War, numbering at least 20,000 troops, and 40 aircraft among 200 items of military hardware. The troops rehearsed the defence of Belarus against an armed attack by NATO, simulated tactical nuclear strikes against Poland, and the suppression of an uprising by a Polish minority in Belarus. The then President Medvedev, and his Belorussian counterpart, who invited observers from neighbouring countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine) to the closing event, described the exercise as “purely defensive”. Belarus is Russia’s closest ally and defence post to the west, whose air defence is integrated within Russia’s AD system. The two countries pledged to continue this type of exercise every two years, “separately” from Russia’s own major drills, under the code name Shchit Soyuza (Union Shield). It has to be stated, that Russia’s behaviour concerning Zapad-2009 was heavily marked by Kremlin’s increasingly anti-Western mood and its distancing from international arms control agreements, including the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). In particular, Zapad-2009 was closely connected by most defence observers to a simultaneous exercise, called Ladoga-2009. The two exercises together, or even Zapad-2009 alone, exceeded by far the limits of notification and inspection foreseen in the 1999 Vienna Document of the OSCE (more than 9,000 troops or more than 250 tanks etc.). This trick, of splitting artificially major exercises and notifying the OSCE of figures just below the thresholds, if at all, has been continued by Russia ever since in order to avoid compulsory observers from NATO countries.
Zapad-2013 was significantly larger than its predecessor both in the number of troops, as well as its operational territory, including the entire Russian Western MD up to the Barents Sea, Belarus, the Kaliningrad oblast and the Baltic Sea (therefore, the Baltic States were practically encircled by Russian troops, planes, warships etc. on the move). The number of troops involved was far larger than Russia’s notified 22,000 (which probably included just the ground troops of the armed forces) – most likely between 70,000 and 90,000 (including the air force and navy, troops of the Ministry of Interior etc.) according to different estimates. The official scenario of Zapad-2013 was combatting terrorism in Belarus. It was evidently hard to believe that terrorism could endanger Belarus, even theoretically, to the extent that the entire Russian Baltic Fleet, as well as strategic nuclear bombers had to be on full alert, but the Russian authorities maintained adamantly the authenticity of the scenario.
Nevertheless, the biggest leap made by Russia was not quantitative, but qualitative. To name just a few changes since 2010: all forces under different power ministries were subordinated to the commander of the MD, mobile brigades in permanent readiness appeared instead of divisions, high-readiness was defined in hours, and concerned mostly units manned with professionals.
Russia attacked Georgia in August 2008 with troops that had just finished the Kavkaz-2008 exercise, and it did the same thing again in 2014, in Ukraine. I cannot make a better summary of this, than did my colleague at ICDS, Pauli Järvenpää, in his August 2014 report to The Jamestown Foundation: “The very same troops that took part in the Zapad-2013 exercise just a few months before—according to Russian sources, roughly 150,000 of them—were put on high alert in a “snap combat exercise” while the Ukrainian crisis was first developing. Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year and the forces Moscow used in its operations across south-eastern Ukraine possessed the same sets of capabilities and skills practiced in the Zapad-2013 exercises. As these exercises demonstrated, in many ways Zapad-2013 and the operations in Crimea were part of the same thread in Russian military thinking and operations.”
In September, a new major Russian military exercise, Tsentr-2015 (Central MD), will take place, partly overlapping with the Russian-Belorussian Shchit Soyuza-2015, and some other significant drills; for example, the CSTO or Collective Security Treaty Organization exercise Boyevoye Sodruzhestvo (“Mutual Friendship in Combat”) and the Russian-Belorussian exercise Vzaimodeystvie (“Interoperability”). The preparations for Tsentr began well before the end of the winter training season in May, but for now, it is still premature to guess the numbers of troops and equipment participating in the exercises, or even the official scenario, that has not yet been officially revealed2. However, one may presume that the overall manpower (perhaps around 90,000–100,000) and equipment involved in the exercise, as well as the operational area will not decrease compared to the previous Tsentr, maybe even increased by large swaths of the Western MD, including the Baltic Sea and the Kaliningrad oblast. The Central MD is, of course, not only meant to defend Moscow and Russia’s heartland, but first of all to support operations in all directions, particularly to the west. Numerous units and pieces of equipment may be relatively easily deployed from the Central to the Western MD3, particularly in the course of massive exercises.
The Russian media will probably report, as directed by the Kremlin, successful deployments of air assault units and/or Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missiles, or even demonstrate the might of Russia’s entire nuclear triad4 to impress the domestic public and, most importantly, to send a powerful message to the US and its NATO allies5. The Russian media coverage of Tsentr and related exercises will most likely turn out to be a televised propaganda show of force in direct contrast with official claims of “pure defensiveness”.
Over 2,000 military exercises, at all levels, were held in Russia in the last winter training period, across 130 polygons. The Russian Ministry of Defence claims that the number of bilateral drills grew by almost 45 per cent6. In March, President Putin ordered the number of exercises to be doubled (up to 4,000) in the summer season (from June to November). In this context, the acceleration of Russia’s military efforts is evident and it shows no sign of levelling out, or that sufficient quantitative levels have been achieved, even if qualitative improvements are always desirable. The year-by-year sharp increase in the Russian defence budget is counted in tens of per cent7 in order to finance both the modernization of armaments and equipment, and the notably growing number of military exercises. While major pre-schedule drills are well inscribed in the defence budget, and do not necessitate the actual movement of all forces concerned, large scale combat readiness exercises8 involving tens of thousands of troops, entire navies, strategic bombers and so on, are quite costly in order to achieve a similar show of power.
President Putin9 actually likes large snap exercises very much, because these demonstrate Russia’s ability to surprise by moving around huge forces at very short notice, and by simulating true actions (not only defensive in character) that may easily be turned into real operations. The last Russian snap exercise to the west and north was held between the 16th and the 21st of March 2015, and involved 80,000 troops, 10,000 items of military hardware, 65 combat ships, 15 submarines and over 200 aircraft and helicopters10. Tu-95MS (“Bear”) strategic bombers took part in military exercises in the polar region, in order to check the country’s air defence systems.
In conclusion, Russia is not going to de-escalate its confrontation with the West11 or its course to speedy militarization, including the significant growth of military exercises, both planned and no-notice drills12. The actual scenarios of Western-directed exercises will be continuously hostile and eventually provocative for NATO allies. The Kremlin will continue to send strong signals, including nuclear ones, pretending that Russia’s military escalation is a result of NATO’s efforts to beef up, even if so far rather symbolically, the defence of its easternmost allies13. The large snap exercises are especially designed to spread uncertainty and anxiety in Western capitals, particularly in neighbouring countries. Therefore, NATO allies, especially those in the Nordic-Baltic region, have to adapt to this grim new reality, follow Russia’s large scale military drills very closely, especially the snap exercises, and be ready to react efficiently to any provocations or threats. Adaptation means, above all, conventional deterrence against the Russian threat that is becoming more and more real, if it is not countered with sufficient allied forces and capabilities. NATO needs to significantly increase the presence of allied troops in the Baltic States and Poland14, and provide – for as long as necessary – certain key capabilities, such as medium-range air defence, coastal defence and anti-ship assets.
At this point in time, it seems that Russia is preparing to confront the West (i.e. including the US) militarily, having already rehearsed large-scale anti-NATO operations in the Nordic-Baltic region several times. Russia may assess that it has already acquired decisive military and political advantages, given NATO’s meagre presence in the region, which, coupled with certain developments15 could lead to an unforeseen and catastrophic chain of events. NATO allies should not waste precious time, and take proactive steps firmly and quickly, along the lines suggested above, in order to prevent the worst from happening. Adequate and timely preventative measures are always much cheaper than crisis management.
1 e.g. the London-based European Leadership Network
2 On the 26th of March 2015, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, commander of the Central MD, told journalists that “the exercise will unite under a single command tens of thousands of troops from all branches of the Russian Armed Forces, law enforcement ministries and departments, and they will be active on several firing ranges across Russia, exercising special-purpose, research and other assignments”. He added that “the exercise, in particular, will feature the use of cutting-edge automated systems of communication and command” and that “a number of regions will be tested for their organization of defense with the practice of mobilization deployment”.
3 Especially, units of paratroopers and special operations forces (Spetsnaz), aircraft and airborn assets etc.
4 Nuclear weapons delivery of a strategic nuclear arsenal which consists of three components that are traditional strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
5 Including firing Iskander-Ms and/or strategic ballistic missiles Bulava from submarines.
6 Indeed, Russia has conducted more exercises with China, Serbia and other non-Western sympathetic nations.
7 In 2015 it is estimated at 30%, but the Russian state budget is generally opaque.
8 Also known as snap exercises.
9 To whom the Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoigu, reports directly concerning such exercises.
10 A surprise check started with Russia’s Northern Fleet, units and formations of its Western Military District and the Airborne Force, and subsequently extended to troops in other Russian regions.
11 Neither in terms of rhetoric, nor by taking practical steps.
12 There are, of course, budgetary, material and manpower limits to what Russia may militarily demonstrate and achieve with such large scale exercises, and this limit seems to be rather close, especially given Russia’s shrinking economy and reserves.
13 Russia started its military escalation in 2008, whereas NATO undertook defensive measures only in early 2014, after the illegal annexation of Crimea. In addition, the number and size of NATO’s exercises in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions are far less than Russia’s.
14 The US, but also UK, Germany and France, should be able to deploy, on a rotational basis, an armoured brigade in each of the Baltic States and Poland.
15 E.g. a DPRK provoked war in the Korean Peninsula that will undobtedly engage the US politically and militarily.