These large-scale strategic military exercises exposed many weak spots for the Russian army
On 11–17 September, Russia’s Far East (and parts of Siberia) hosted “the largest operational-strategic military exercises” carried out by Moscow since 1981. Aside from Russian troops, the exercises included 3,200 Chinese military personnel and an unspecified number of Mongolian forces, which gave the manoeuvres multinational status. This analysis aims to explore these exercises not as a stand-alone event, but in conjunction with trends and tendencies that have characterised Russian military science since 2010.
What’s on the Surface?
Russia’s preparations for the “largest drills in its contemporary military history” had begun several months prior to the event, presenting a series of intense training and inspections. In August alone, surprise inspections (wnezapnaja proverka) of the Northern Fleet and the Central (CMD) and Eastern Military Districts (EMD) commenced. It should be pointed out that, in terms of specialist training (16 in total), particular emphasis was placed on intelligence-gathering, radio-electronic warfare (EW), deception (maskirovka), moral-psychological training (one of the key priorities in the training of Russian armed forces1) and material-technical supply (materialno-tekhnicheskoje obespechenije). It is vital to note that preparatory activities/training were deliberately carried out on “non-familiar terrain”, meaning that the soldiers and their superiors had to demonstrate creativity and adjust quickly to unfamiliar environments. In addition to mass mobilisation (21 units were mobilised in ten subjects of the Russian Federation) and territorial defence troops (units were formed up in the South and Central Military Districts and transferred to the EMD),2 the preparatory stage in effect underscored key elements to be trained in the actual context of the forthcoming exercises.
At the same time, the most important element that Moscow was eager to demonstrate to external observers was the scope of the event. According to the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, Vostok 2018 was to involve, among others, the following forces:3
- 297,000 military personnel;
- more than 1,000 aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of various types;
- 36,000 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers;
- 80 ships and auxiliary vessels;
- Iskander-M operational-tactical missile complexes;
- S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft weapon systems.
Figures presented by the Russian side predictably led foreign and domestic observers to draw parallels with the largest strategic military exercises previously carried out by Moscow: Zapad-1981, Zapad-2013 and Vostok 2014. The declared numbers demonstrated the visible superiority of the current exercises, not only over everything carried out by Russia since 1991 but even by the USSR;4 with a population close to 264 million and armed forces numbering five million, Zapad-81 assembled “only” 100,000–120,000 military personnel.
Pledging to deploy almost one-third of its armed forces for Vostok 2018, Russian military-political elites aimed to position the manoeuvres—whose “scenario involves a whole range of hostilities that fits into a single plan”5—as evidence of Russia’s readiness to engage in a large-scale military confrontation on its allegedly poorly protected and underpopulated eastern border, with any adversary and in each strategic sphere of confrontation.
Points in Focus
Despite its image (skilfully shaped by the media and officials), the actual mission of Vostok 2018 may have differed from what Russia wanted it to look like. In assessing current exercises, it is essential not to overlook the general trajectory of Russian military thought since the outbreak of instability in the Middle East (the Arab Spring). Analysis of writing produced by Russian military experts and strategists clearly demonstrates a visible tilt towards asymmetric forms of confrontation6 as a means of effectively countering a technologically more advanced and militarily powerful adversary in conditions of network-centric warfare (NCW). This means that, if Russia is indeed preparing for this type of confrontation (which clearly stems from both theory and practice), the rehearsal for a large-scale conflict (a point actively promulgated by the Russian side) hardly fits with the logic of Russian behaviour. In assessing these manoeuvres, a clear distinction should be made between the visual image (shaped by rhetoric, geographical scope and hyper-inflated numbers of armed forces engaged)—which wholly complies with the Russian/Soviet technique of maskirovka (deception) used to puzzle and confuse potential opponents—and core elements trained during the manoeuvres. If the latter is taken into account, Vostok 2018 may be seen in four ways.
First, as part of the “information battlefield”. Most reputable military analysis agrees on Russia’s deliberate exaggeration of forces engaged in the exercises. One prominent military expert, Alexander Goltz, characterised the given figures as “striking in their absurdity”,7 which can be corroborated by the actual capabilities (in both manpower and equipment) of the Russian military districts involved. Given Russia’s apparent vulnerabilities in Siberia and the Far East (severe underpopulation and relatively weak military capabilities), these manoeuvres were to demonstrate that Russia is equally concerned with the security of its western and eastern flanks, remaining militarily the most formidable player in Asia (an apparent message to the US, Japan and South Korea) capable of transporting large quantities of military personnel and equipment to the theatre in case of potential military escalation. However, it would not be entirely correct to reduce the purpose of this message to these countries. Given the visible imbalance (especially in terms of economic capability and demographics) in a nascent “alliance” with Beijing, China should be seen as yet another (although essentially different) addressee of the message. It is clear that Russia’s efforts are concerned with proving that weakness in these strategic components (which cannot be levelled down) should not be seen as a pretext for Beijing to look at Moscow as its junior partner. The deliberate invitation of Chinese forces was to demonstrate that Russia can counter inferiority in certain components by its military capabilities, thereby rendering Moscow equal to Beijing. On the other hand, writings by high-profile analysts of Russian military affairs explicitly state that developments on the “information battlefield” will have a decisive effect on Russia’s chances in future military conflicts. Thus, the successful conduct of information-psychological operations (the so-called non-military component of “information confrontation”) should be seen as a pivotal aspect helping to level down advantages of a militarily/technologically superior adversary in terms of NCW. This “information” aspect (successfully tested by Russia on various previous occasions) has gained particular weight in the context of Vostok 2018.
Second, a major testing ground for the “Syrian experience”. In effect, this capacity of the exercises was articulately set out in comments by the commander of the CMD, Lieutenant General Alexander Lapin, prior to the manoeuvres and reiterated during them by Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov, commander of the EMD.8,9 In this regard, three strategic dimensions should be highlighted:
- the EW capabilities positioned by Russian strategists as a crucial element of a new type of warfare. In this respect, equally important were developments on-site and exercises carried out on the territory of the CMD, where—away from the main theatre and unwarranted eyes (including the Chinese)—major EW training witnessed the employment of unique pieces of radio-electronic confrontation (some for the first time);10
- the use of UAVs and robotic technologies—elements of the Syrian experience and, in the view of Russian strategists, a key factor for success in future conflicts;11
- operations by medium-sized assault groups (airborne assault forces of the “new type”12).
Third, a training ground for logistics (troop transportation) and mass mobilisation. These have been two major scourges of Russian and Soviet military history. In essence, the Russian side intended to simulate a pendulum-like modus operandi by rapidly deploying armed forces to a distant theatre.
Fourth, a continuation of efforts aimed at developing high-precision strike capability with special emphasis on anti-missile defence. In the context of these exercises, the Russian armed forces (reinforced with such systems as the S-300 and S-400 long-range surface-to-air missiles, the Buk medium-range and the Tor short-range surface-to-air missile systems, as well as the Pantsir-S1 medium-range surface-to-air missile systems) managed to “establish an integrated multilayered anti-aircraft/missile system operating from a single centre located on the territory of the EMD”13 with an extensive reliance on the experience gained by the Russian armed forces in Syria.14
Problems and Shortcomings
Despite the jubilation stemming from the comments of Russian military experts about the “unique capabilities, superior to the West in terms of the mobility and deployment of armed forces”,15 Vostok 2018 did display a number of weak spots, rendering this supposition questionable.
First, the issue of critical infrastructure. Reputable Russian sources have argued that, in fact, the level of mobility during troop deployments was not very high, and that this will remain a strategic problem for years to come. For instance, it was noted that
had the deployment taken place in the circumstances of real military engagement, the enemy could (by dealing pre-emptive strikes) have reduced the transportation capabilities of the Russian side to the Trans-Siberian Railway, since Russia does not have the means of reliable connection with the Far East.16
Thus, the issue of strategic communication and transportation seems to remain Russia’s key deficiency.
Second, the issue of military transport by air. Given continuing weaknesses in infrastructure, the emphasis in terms of troop deployment should be on military transport aviation. However, the manoeuvres also demonstrated the lack of capability in this domain. Vostok 2018 showed that the Russian armed forces do not have an adequate number of Mil Mi-8A, Mi-26 and Mi-24 helicopters.17 In practical terms, this means that the problem brought to light in 2003 by the former commander of army aviation, Hero of the Soviet Union Colonel-General Vitaly Pavlov, is yet to be resolved.18 This is aggravated by the fact that, due to the debacle in political relations between Russia and Ukraine since 2014, Russian plans for the production of the Mi-26 have been delayed due to the breakdown of economic ties and military-technical cooperation; critically important elements indispensable for the Mi-26 are produced in Ukraine, and Russia will only be able to fully substitute these by 2025.
Who Is the Ally, and Who the Target?
Perhaps the most important aspect of Vostok 2018 is concerned with two interrelated aspects: Russia’s vision of future opponent(s) and potential zone/theatre of a military encounter.
Given the main spaces/fields (information, anti-missile defence, rapid transportation/deployment of troops, and territorial defence with elements of counter-offensive operations), as well as the confrontation scenario (rapid transition from defence to offence), a potential opponent should be seen as the technologically (more) advanced party planning to conduct operations in the context of NCW.
In this respect, China should be ruled out for two reasons. First and foremost, the invitation of a potential opponent (and sharing some of the key lessons learnt in Syria) would be a strategic blunder on Moscow’s part, which is hardly imaginable under current circumstances. Second, taking into consideration the above-mentioned points, it should be underlined that, at this stage of the development of its armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army cannot boast capabilities superior to Russia in strategic areas of confrontation (with the sole exception, arguably, of UAVs19), which means that the Russian General Staff does not see the Chinese side as willing to carry out offensive military operations in the NCW context.
At this juncture, a closer look is required at developments that took place on 15 September on Bamburovo beach (in Primorsky krai), where the Russian side conducted landings and launched a decisive counter-attack supported by 200 pieces of military equipment.20 A combination of three factors—the nature of the operational task, the landscape, and the unfamiliarity of the terrain—could shed more light on which party Russia sees as a potential adversary and in which region actual hostilities might take place. It appears that one of the tasks of Vostok 2018 might involve training for counter-offensive operations in the Baltic Sea region, with the ultimate goal of taking the Denmark Strait under the effective control of the Russian armed forces and imposing control over the Baltic Sea basin.
4 In terms of naval power, only Zapad-81 was more impressive: 300 ships as opposed to 80.
17 In fact, the Russian MoD is incorrect, since similar tasks were carried out during the war in Afghanistan (1979–89).
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.