Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov triumphantly announced the start on June 9 of military exercises of a scale that “Russia has not seen before”. The codename is “Mobilnost (Mobility) – 2004” and indeed the key element is the airlift of three combat units: one company from the Pskov Airborne Division, one company from the Northern Fleet Marine Brigade, and a battalion from the Volga-Ural Military District, dispatched to a training ground in the Far East. Some 50 aircraft from the Military-Transport Aviation and the Ministry of Transport would operate the “air bridge” and deliver these 800 troops and 100 armored and other vehicles. The “active phase” will take place on June 21-25. But a number of smaller exercises, integrated within the same strategic framework, subsequently will be staged. The exercises are being undertaken as a demonstration and test of combat readiness (Izvestia, June 10).
This brief information, and the public relations campaign surrounding the exercises, emanating from the leadership at least leads to critical reflection. One immediately obvious feature is the absence of any nuclear elements. The strategic forces, which performed so poorly during the “presidential” exercises in February, are not staging new missile launches. The idea of “pre-emptive strikes,” that Moscow finds so fascinating in the vein of current US thinking about “new wars” has, therefore, not reached an empirical level.
Another noteworthy feature is the relatively small number of combat troops involved in this performance, particularly in comparison with “Operation Overlord” that Russia was for the first time invited to celebrate on June 6. What makes the Russian exercises truly unique is the rapid deployment across the entire stretch of this large country. The huge scale of the operation cannot fail to impress European members of NATO who are experiencing an acute shortage of strategic airlift capacity for sustaining the operation in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is possible to assume that Moscow is not preparing for any contingencies, specifically in the Far East, but rather sending a signal: “anyplace is within our reach” (Vremya Novostei, June 8; Russian Ministry of Defense web site, June 9, https://www.mil.ru/releases/2004/06/091021_6844.shtml).
The prime target for this signal is possibly Central Asia. Instead of setting off a tsunami wave of alarmist comments in the West with another exercise in the Caspian area, on par with those in summer 2002, Moscow makes the point in a subtler but no less efficient way. As the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan appears progressively feeble and vulnerable, Russia shows the deeply concerned leaders that it is able to come quickly to their rescue and disperse any terrorist insurgency with prevailing force. No inconvenient questions about human rights records would be asked. Another intended recipient of the signal is probably Georgia, which has recently shown its own small but US-trained military muscle against rebellious South Ossetia. Georgian President Saakashvily presumably needs a reminder that Chechnya, while still a zone of deadlocked conflict, now needs fewer troops to police. Therefore, Russia has sufficient spare troops to face other challenges.
However, the success of this multi-purpose power demonstration is by no means guaranteed. More modest exercises last summer brought too many accidents and technical malfunctions, such as helicopters colliding in a landing area and heavy bombers disintegrating in mid-air. It is exactly in the Far East that the old Soviet military infrastructure is now weakened beyond repair. Therefore, probability of failure is quite high. It is entirely possible that the Russian military leadership views this eventuality as an acceptable risk. However, a different explanation can also be advanced.
A serious conflict between Russian Defense Minister Ivanov Ivanov and Chief of General Staff Kvashnin has been brewing since last autumn when the minister expressed the opinion that the general staff had accumulated too many administrative functions and needed instead to concentrate on strategic planning. This line recently has been reinforced through several amendments to the Law on Defense, approved by the State Duma. The Duma generally has few opinions of its own on matters of any strategic importance. Nevertheless, Kvashnin remains defiant, cognizant that even if Ivanov enjoys Putin’s full confidence, his defense ministry still is unable to take on command functions – or to handle operations in Chechnya. But now it is Kvashnin who is in charge of the high-profile exercises – and will duly be held responsible for every failure. The sad fact of the matter is that none of the protagonists in this clash of titans cares much about streamlining bloated command structures. So if Kvashnin gets a well-deserved sacking, military reform would still remain stalled.