On 16–21 September, Russia held one of its strategic-level military exercises—traditionally rotating each year between four strategic theatres and bearing the names Zapad (in 2009, 2013 and 2017), Vostok (2010, 2014 and 2018), Tsentr (2011 and 2015) and Kavkaz (2012 and 2016).
In addition to Russian armed forces, the Tsentr-2019 exercises brought together troops from China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, de facto turning it into the most multicultural strategic military exercise ever carried out by the Russian Federation.
According to information officially released by the Russian side (the actual strength may have been exaggerated, as is traditional), in total the exercises assembled the following forces: 128,000 military personnel, more than 20,000 pieces of special military equipment, over 600 aircraft of various types (jets, helicopters and drones) and 15 warships.1 The geographical scope of the exercises was also impressive, involving six different areas located on Russian territory stretching from the North Caucasus to Western Siberia, while some elements took place in the partner countries. As well as land-based operations, the exercises consisted of manoeuvres in the strategically important Caspian Sea basin, where integrated operations (involving sea and land forces) intended to defend naval communications and transportation routes (in essence, defensive paramilitary actions aimed at protecting essential geo-economic objects) were carried out.
The script for Tsentr-2019 comprised two stages: the first involved rehearsing anti-terrorist actions, anti-aircraft operations, reconnaissance and defensive actions, all performed by joint forces; the second consisted of turning defensive actions into counter-attacks, aimed at the complete destruction of the enemy’s potential. Particularly important in the scenario was the use of coalition forces in joint military operations against terrorist forces in the strategically vital (for Russia) Central Asian direction.2 In addition to the strategic goal, the exercises aimed to address other tasks and missions, primarily tactical and operational in nature.3
Beyond their impressive geographical scope, reported large quantity of military personnel and equipment employed, and multifaceted roster of participants, the exercises demonstrated a number of other important elements that can be outlined in four main takeaway points.
In addition to the foregoing, analysis of Tsentr-2019 points to the following four crucial elements.
- Sophistication of the command and control (C2) structure and communications. The exercises (which were, among other things, aimed at training for various types of integrated/joint operations) witnessed the creation of a protective radio-electronic network that connected parts of the Volga region, Siberia, the Urals and the North Caucasus. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, radio channels protected by the system can function even in conditions of intensive radio-electronic confrontation (radio-elekronnoje protivodejsvije).4 Indeed, the emphasis on this element should be attributed to Russia’s prioritisation of (counter)offensive military operations in conditions of network-centric warfare—an aspect that has been given clear priority in Russia’s military training, heavily influenced by developments since 2011 (the Arab Spring and ensuing conflicts in the Middle East). Strong emphasis on this component signifies Russia’s continued efforts in the realm of “information security” (informatsionnaya bezopasnost) in the military domain, as outlined in Russia’s Doctrine of Information Security (December 2016).5
- Emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A closer look at Russia’s military exercises since 2014 reveals a steady trend in this direction—a tendency that has also received new impetus in the light of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.6 During Tsentr-2019, integration of various types of UAV in the exercises reached a new level. As noted in Russian sources, “one of the important episodes [in the exercises] was the massive use of UAVs. A special squad consisting of UAVs of various types was created.” Their main task boiled down to “identification and destruction of enemy targets”.7 This element signified a new trend: the emergence and practical use of military-capable UAVs on missions/operations other than intelligence and/or reconnaissance tasks. This showed that the Russian defence-industrial complex has been able (for now, to a limited extent, of course) to deal effectively with a previously exposed deficiency. It would be reasonable to assume that future exercises will exhibit even greater emphasis on this component.
- Preparatory phase and parallel exercises. In effect, Tsentr-2019 was preceded by a number of simulations and warning exercises—the largest of which took place on 24–28 June, consisting of 50 various elements carried out in 35 military areas8—that were intended to check the combat readiness of troops located in the Central Military District (CMD). Furthermore, during the joint Russia-Belarus Shchit Soyuza (“Union Shield”) military exercises held between 13 and 19 September, 12,000 soldiers/officers, 950 pieces of military equipment (including more than 30 tanks, 80 armoured vehicles and 50 multiple-rocket launchers) and hardware as well as 70 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters were deployed.9 Tsentr-2019 should therefore be seen as inseparable from its preparatory stage, which aimed to review actual military capabilities—to a more limited extent but, from a strategic and military point of view, no less important—on Russia’s western flank (as is usually done during the Zapad strategic exercises).
- The Arctic theatre: Russia’s ulterior priority. In declaring its goals ahead of the exercises, Moscow explicitly identified Central Asia as its key priority, although a deeper look also revealed the clear importance of the North Caucasus. What remained beyond the immediate focus was the Arctic region, which appeared to be given very little priority in Tsentr-2019. This impression, however, does not correspond to the facts. In the Arctic region Russia pursued somewhat different objectives. In fact, on 16 September, Russian troops deployed in the Arctic conducted drills on Bolshevik Island, proceeding towards Uyedineniya Island in the Kara Sea. Despite the apparent lack of attention to this theatre, a Russian defence official described the local exercises as a “serious testing of the battle capacities of the Arctic troops”.10 In this way the Russians trained for a limited-scale tactical operation(s), perhaps more commensurate with the realities of the new type of armed conflict.
Russia’s Undeclared Objectives
In addition to all this, Moscow also pursued another essential objective(s), which from strategic point of view might turn out to be of paramount importance.
Prominent Russian military expert Aleksandr Khramchikhin noted that “[although] the scenario for the exercises envisages merely a limited imitation of anti-terrorist operations, in fact the exercises are primarily aimed at rehearsing classical ‘army-against-army’ military operations”. Crucially, Khramchikhin noted that, given the number of troops despatched by Russia’s partners—the largest groups were from China (1,600), India (140), Tajikistan (100) and Pakistan (90)—the “fact of [their] participation was much more important than participation itself”.11 In other words, by bringing in a diverse group of actors (in many ways hostile to each other), Moscow was primarily seeking two objectives. First, despite increasing cooperation with Beijing (including in the military domain), Russia’s goal during Tsentr-2019 was to demonstrate its potential leading role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which clearly stems from the choice of actors invited to take part in the exercises. In this respect, Moscow is trying to displace Russia’s existing inferiority in its partnership with China in terms of demographics and economic capabilities by demonstrating its military potential, which it sees as its competitive advantage in relations with its eastern partner. Indeed, a closer look in other theatres/areas of cooperation between Russia and China (e.g. Latin and Central America, Africa) reveals Russia’s eagerness to use its military potential as a complement to Chinese economic capabilities.12 Secondly, by bringing together actors whose relations are riddled with multiple fissures/tensions (China–India, India–Pakistan, Tajikistan–Uzbekistan) and uncertainties (Uzbekistan–Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan–China) as well as players that are usually reluctant to join military exercises organised by others (Uzbekistan), Russia is trying to play the role of strategist and mediator in greater Eurasia, thereby increasing its geopolitical weight, prestige and influence. In many ways, this role by and large complies with the role sought by the architect of Russia’s conservative foreign policy, Yevgeny Primakov, at the dawn of the 21st century, and later accelerated after 2013–14 and Russia’s “pivot to the East”.
To conclude, two important remarks should be made. First, in carrying out the Tsentr-2019 exercises, Russia aimed to achieve both military (encapsulated in on-the-ground simulations) and non-military objectives. Despite apparent success, however, it is not at all clear whether the second component will play out the way Moscow wants, an issue that stems not from Russia’s deficiencies as such but, rather, the complexity and far-reaching nature of regional engagements. The second aspect relates to the military part of the exercises. In the light of the most recent attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities in Buqayq and Khurais carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels (Ansar Allah) with the alleged support of Iran,13 many Russian military experts have already started to speculate whether large, costly and rather cumbersome military exercises like Tsentr-2019 are in effect becoming less relevant and should, perhaps, be optimised in line with the changing nature of warfare.14 Leaving aside the non-military component that had a very different aim from that declared in the official version of the exercises, a relevant question to ask would therefore be whether the main mission and scope of Tsentr-2019 is an example of Russia’s preparation for previous wars.
5 Sergey Sukhankin, “Russia’s Offensive and Defensive Use of Information Security”, in Glen E. Howard & Matthew Czekaj, Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine. Washington DC: The Jamestown Foundation, 2019 (pp. 302–45).