Anti-terrorist exercises are currently underway in Central Asia, witnessed by observers from non-CIS States including China, Iran, and Pakistan, within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). These annual exercises, rehearsing military operations against terrorists and insurgents, are designed to showcase the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces (CRDF). They take on greater significance in the aftermath of the July 30 terrorist attacks in Tashkent and growing concern that Islamic militants may be planning more attacks within the region (Itar-Tass, July 31).
The exercises, codenamed “Border 2004,” will unfold in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in two phases. They include 1,700 military personnel and 23 aircraft. Russia assigned a Special Forces unit from the Volga-Urals Military District, though it also has a designated battalion for the CRDF from the 201st Motor Rifle Division in Dushanbe, which will be joined by Special Forces from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. An air-assault company from Tajikistan further enhances Dushanbe’s contribution. Kazakhstan is represented by elements of the 35th Air Assault Brigade, based at Kapchagai and, according to the Minister of Defense Army-General Mukhtar Altynbaev, Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) will also take part. The first phase, held August 2-4 in Kazakhstan, practiced the political decision-making skills involved in using the CRDF. The more active military phase, August 4-6, moves to Kyrgyzstan, where it will concentrate on the mechanics of operational command and rehearse way to disband illegally armed groups on Kyrgyz territory.
As the exercises switch to Kyrgyzstan, special emphasis will be placed on assessing the capabilities of the participants to move personnel, equipment, weapons, supplies, and various types of combat-support transport. The Kyrgyz phase involves CRDF training in Issyk-Kul and Chuy Region (eastern and northern Kyrgyzstan) and using the mountain training center in Edelveys (Krasnaya zvezda, July 17; Kyrgyz Radio First Program, July 28). Unlike previous CRDF exercises, which have tended to concentrate on well-rehearsed live-fire components, these will use the airbase at Kant, where elements of the Russian air force deployed in November 2003. Given its proximity to anti-terrorism coalition forces deployed at Manas, electronic warfare techniques reportedly will be used to prevent coalition monitoring of the exercises. Military aviation will include the A-50 radar-intelligence plane and the Ka-50 (Black Shark) helicopter. Su-27 interceptors will practice shielding ground forces from air strikes, and Su-25s will be used to target the enemy on the ground.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov confirmed that the participants would mainly be “special forces and airborne units.” In Ivanov’s view “Border 2004” should “check the ability of transport aviation and permanent readiness units in the transfer of troops to unfamiliar theaters” (Voyenno-promyshlenny kurier, July 7-13). Although the CRDF has struggled to shake off its image as a largely paper force, it has taken some concrete steps towards addressing its military inefficiencies by enhancing its local airpower options at Kant and now by demonstrating that it is addressing the practical need to move military personnel and equipment rapidly throughout the region in the event of a crisis.
All sides benefit politically from participating in such exercises. Russia enhances its credentials as a provider of genuine security. The weaker Central Asian states, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan learn how to transfer their troops over comparatively large distances. Tajik, or even Kazakh planes flying to Kant are guided and landed by Russian specialists at a de facto Russian air base. In turn, these countries only incur a small price for maintenance.
CRDF exercises have and continue to examine the same scenario: an attack within the region similar to the IMU attacks in Batken in 1999 and 2000. The military dimension appears more for public relations than deterring terrorists. Regional intelligence services must be at the forefront of counter-terrorist operations. However, as some countries in Central Asia have shown more openness towards the United States and the West in seeking to foster security ties, Russia can easily remind its Central Asian neighbors that a cheap — if imperfect — alternative security apparatus, can operate without the inconvenience of having to pursue democratization and internal reforms. Simultaneously, Major-General Nikolai Chernomordin, the Russian Commander of the CRDF, believes that members of the international coalition — the United States, France, or Britain — could join future CRDF exercises. While some type of contact and cooperation could not be ruled out, it would require the political decision to equate the global war on terror with Russia’s own war on terror in Chechnya, paving the way for Russia to join a “coalition of the winning,” rather of the willing.