Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 158

From August 23-27, air defense units of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan–the countries making up the CIS joint air defense system–conducted their annual joint exercise, “Military Commonwealth,” at the Ashuluk testing range in Russia’s Astrakhan region. Supervised by Russia’s air force commander, Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov, this year’s exercise was the largest ever held. Even so, however, financial constraints made it less than impressive as a multinational exercise. A total of approximately 2,000 personnel–double last year’s figure–participated, Russians forming the majority. The fighter planes involved in the exercise appeared to be exclusively Russian. Judging from Russian media reports, the other countries’ contributions seemed to range between one and several missile batteries per country. The Belarusans were the most active, firing S-300, Buk and Osa missiles. The Kazakhs–according to some reports–also used the modern S-300, while the Kyrgyz and the Armenians had to content themselves with the obsolete S-125 and S-75. The apparent downgrading of Armenia’s role may be attributable to a Russian attempt to refute Azerbaijani charges that Moscow has made S-300 missiles available to Armenia. The Armenians, however, might have a chance to practice firing those missiles in their own country, where S-300s were recently deployed at Russian bases. The Kyrgyz, for their part, proved proficient enough to shoot down an aerostat.

“Military Commonwealth-99” featured several innovations. Drawing on what the Russian side termed “the lessons of Yugoslavia,” it purported to practice strikes at such “enemy” air targets as pilotless aircraft and cruise missiles, including simulations of U.S. Tomahawks. Also for the first time, the exercise purported to test the mobility of some of the surface-to-air missile systems. And it supplemented the air defense exercise with strikes by Russian Su-24 and Su-25 assault aircraft against “enemy” forces on the ground. This step may indicate a Russian intent incrementally to expand “Military Commonwealth” from an air defense exercise to a more general type of joint maneuvers to involve ground exercises as well.

On August 27, the participating countries’ defense ministers–minus Kyrgyzstan’s acting minister, who is otherwise occupied at home–held in Ashuluk a regular session of the CIS Defense Ministers’ Council under the chairmanship of the Russian minister, Marshal Igor Sergeev. The participants discussed the possible leasing of S-75, S-125 and S-200 missiles and of interceptor aircraft by Russia to willing CIS member countries for periods of five to ten years. The Russian side balked at requests to lease S-300 missiles and MiG-29 aircraft, apparently wishing to reserve these advanced systems for sale outside the CIS or for delivery to such favorite allies as Belarus. Surprisingly, Tajikistan–which has no air defense force to speak of–was mentioned as being considered for delivery of S-300 missiles; such delivery might serve as a legal paravane for sending Russian air defense units into that country.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk attended the exercise as an observer and participated in the ministerial session. Citing as always Ukraine’s constitutionally anchored nonbloc status, Kuzmuk ruled out Ukrainian participation in future “Military Commonwealth” exercises. He did also confirm Ukraine’s known willingness to participate with Russia in joint production of air defense weapons and communications systems for delivery to member countries of the CIS joint air defense system. Kuzmuk, furthermore, concluded what the Russian side termed an “understanding”–apparently short of a binding agreement–with Sergeev on information exchanges regarding possible violations of or accidents in Ukrainian or Russian airspace.

The defense ministers’ council session also featured a bizarre aspect, opening to the strains of the “Anthem of the CIS Defense Ministers’ Council,” recently penned by Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Department for International Military Cooperation. The anti-Western Ivashov is known also for literary ambitions (Krasnaya zvezda, Itar-Tass, RIA, NTV, UNIAN, August 24-29).