Russia’s annual strategic command-staff exercise (strategicheskiye komandno-shtabnyye ucheniya—SKShU)—this year, Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2020, held on September 21–26—is being widely advertised by the Ministry of Defense as a truly international event. The culmination of the Russian Armed Forces’ combat training year is always marked by a strategic-level exercise focused on one of four military districts (MD); the fifth (Northern MD) is not used in this way. In 2018, the Vostok (East) SKShU witnessed the involvement of forces from China; and this evolved, in 2019, to include the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), even though Tsentr (Center) 2019 remained officially designated as specifically a Russian SKShU. Kavkaz 2020 continues and expands this pattern of international involvement in the annual strategic exercise. Five foreign countries took part in the maneuvers, and six sent military observers (see EDM, September 14). That said, Kavkaz 2020, centered on the Southern MD, should still essentially be considered a Russian military exercise, though with a small-scale “multilateral” element (Regnum, September 17).
Kavkaz 2020 focuses on the Southern MD and is being staged under the leadership of Army General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister. While, as usual, serving as a means to test a range of capabilities, command and control (C2), combat readiness and the efficiency of the military logistics system, Kavkaz 2020 is also assessing the use of groups of forces from a “coalition of states” to ensure the security of southwestern Russia. The exercise is divided into two parts, with the first formulating and concluding the planning phase, and the second stage involving live-fire testing to examine C2 over joint forces. The forces involved in the drills draw on air, land and sea units, with the involvement of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. The main actions of the assembled forces use training ranges in the Southern MD—Prudboy, Ashuluk, Kapustin Yar, and the Arzgirsky and Kopanskaya ground air ranges—as well as facilities in Armenia and the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Zvezdaweekly.ru, September 17).
In preparation for Kavkaz 2020, President Vladimir Putin ordered a snap inspection of all military units in the Southern MD in July. It also appears that the defense ministry paid close attention to limiting the risks to personnel linked to the COVID-19 global pandemic, with the widespread use of disinfectant and the mandatory testing for all personnel arriving for the SKShU (Zvezdaweekly.ru, September 17).
The rehearsal of joint operations based on coalition forces mainly involves the Kapustin Yar training ground (Astrakhan region), with forces from the Southern MD joined by personnel from Armenia, Belarus, China, Myanmar and Pakistan. India withdrew, citing the impact and risks associated with the pandemic, though tensions with Beijing may also have influenced the decision. Additionally, the exercise is attended by military representatives from Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka as observers. According to Russia’s defense ministry, the total number of military personnel in Kavkaz 2020 is 80,000, with only a modest 1,000 foreign forces; this statistic reveals the fact that this is a strategic-level Russian exercise with only limited international involvement (Gazeta.ru, September 21).
Moreover, the defense ministry stated that the SKShU involves up to 250 tanks, 450 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, and 200 artillery systems and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS): for an exercise of this scale, these figures are not impressive. Russian personnel are drawn from combat units, logistic and technical support, air-defense, navy and special forces—including the National Guard (Rosgvardia) and the Ministry of Emergencies. The inclusion of the latter confirms the testing of territorial-defense measures. Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Fomin briefed foreign defense attaches in Moscow on the eve of the exercise, unsurprisingly stressing its “exclusively defensive” nature and noting it is “not aimed against any country.” Fomin added that the purpose of the joint forces training is to develop and evaluate anti-terrorist capabilities, rehearse the localization of armed conflict, and to test approaches to working alongside coalition partners. Defense ministry officials also emphasized that the exercise did not focus on “offensive” operations, and they dismissed suggestions by some foreign commentators that the exercise might be used as a cover to launch an attack on Ukraine, for example (Zvezdaweekly.ru, September 17).
While the exercise marked a widening of both the international cooperative feature of the annual SKShU, combined with extending existing frameworks to counter terrorism, the denials issued by defense ministry officials about the nature of the scenario not envisaging combat against a foreign country appear questionable. As Moscow-based military specialists noted, the first stage of Kavkaz, in addition to the anti-terrorist planning, also considered steps to counter the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cruise missiles as well as repelling enemy air strikes—none of which fits the ostensible counter-terrorist dimension of the exercise scenario. However, it is consistent with the scenario used in other strategic-level Russian military exercises in recent years, which rehearsed a range of conflict types, including interstate conflict. Even the planning phase for Kavkaz 2020 examined countering enemy electronic warfare systems and how to operate in an electronically contested operational environment (Gazeta.ru, September 21).
Kavkaz 2020 was exploited by the Russian defense ministry to send strategic signals concerning the crisis in Belarus, with the inclusion of forces from this country (see EDM, September 17). It also highlighted the use, for the first time, of China using its own Y-20 military transport aircraft to transfer PLA personnel to the exercise (Rossaprimavera.ru, September 15). Reportedly, the maneuvers rehearsed combat operations at various levels, ranging from unilateral to multilateral approaches. Some of this reflects experience gained in working with foreign forces in Syria along with increased attention by Russia’s General Staff to developing coalition-based options for future operations. Nevertheless, it is unclear which of the foreign countries participating in Kavkaz 2020 would prove willing to send forces to deal with a security crisis in southwestern Russia (Gazeta.ru, September 21; Izvestia, September 14, 18).
Despite the apparent international dimension in Kavkaz 2020, denials about the inclusion of offensive operations, or the claims that it revolves around countering terrorism, the scenario for the SKShU seems more complex and reflects General Staff thinking on applying a layered approach to localize conflict near Russia’s borders. The attention to countering enemy cruise missiles and UAVs implies the presence of a high-technology, advanced state-level adversary (Gazeta.ru, September 21).