Russia’s political-military leadership regularly complains about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military exercises, especially any staged close to the Russian borders. This year, the Alliance planned to conduct Defender Europe 2020, its largest exercise on the European continent since the end of the Cold War; and Moscow predictably voiced concerns (see EDM, January 29). However, the scale of the NATO exercise as well as its timing was modified at the last minute by the global outbreak of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Russia’s Armed Forces have also had to scale back on combat training due to this pandemic, which has limited its capacity to maintain the exercise schedule in the current combat training year (see EDM, April 15, 21, 22). In Russia, that process will culminate this year in the strategic command-staff exercise (strategicheskiye komandno-shtabnyye ucheniya—SKShU) Kavkaz 2020, centered on Southern Military District (MD). However, as the modified version of Defender Europe 2020 began on June 5, Moscow has intertwined public criticism of the North Atlantic Alliance with an apparent offer to de-escalate tensions in relation to military exercises on both sides (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 8).
According to Kommersant, Moscow made an offer to NATO to suspend all major military exercises during the coronavirus pandemic, which was allegedly rejected by the Transatlantic alliance. Kommersant claims that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested this in a letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenburg, asking that the Alliance “show military restraint” for the duration of the pandemic. He added that, in the midst of the health crisis, this could be presented as a “constructive, positive healing step” (Novaya Gazeta, May 26).
The alleged offer and its precise details are not publicly available; consequently, it is impossible to verify these claims. However, given the negative impact of COVID-19 on Russia’s Armed Forces and their ability conduct of combat training and larger military exercises, Moscow is reportedly preparing to reduce military activity close to NATO borders during Kavkaz 2020. The defense ministry has confirmed that the forces deployed for the Kavkaz 2020 SKShU will be pulled back from border areas in order to reduce tensions with the Alliance (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 8). If the offer and the plans for Kavkaz 2020 prove to be genuine, it may well indicate that the COVID-19 crisis within Russia’s Armed Forces is causing much more serious challenges than the authorities are willing to admit publicly.
On June 1, Colonel General Sergei Rutskoy, the chief of the Main Operations Department of the General Staff, announced that Russia’s Armed Forces will not conduct any additional 2020 military exercises close to NATO borders. “We will continue our course toward a de-escalation of the situation in Europe. This year, the Armed Forces do not provide for large-scale exercises near the borders of NATO member countries,” Rutskoy explained, adding, “In the future, we are ready to adjust the areas of the exercises on an equal footing with the Alliance” (Interfax, June 1).
Nevertheless, during the same briefing, Rutskoy had a number of stinging remarks to add on the array of NATO exercises, including Defender Europe 2020, as well as criticism of the United States’ bomber flights. Rutskoy argued that despite the global pandemic, there had been an increase in the training of NATO forces—activities he characterized as “anti-Russian.” He highlighted what Moscow sees as “record levels” of US and NATO military activity close to Russia’s territories. The detail and the nature of the critique appear to precisely mirror US and NATO objections to Russia’s military activities close to NATO frontiers, including airspace violations. Rutskoy characterized all NATO exercises as “anti-Russian” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 10).
In his attack on Defender Europe, Rutskoy recalled that the original plan for the exercise included transferring “28,000” US troops to Europe, with 287 tanks, 449 armored personnel carriers, 95 helicopters and contributions from 17 allied militaries. He pinpointed aspects of the exercise that, in his view, were “anti-Russian,” including the intention to airdrop forces in the Baltic and Caucasus regions on the eve of the May 9 Victory Day celebrations (which were postponed due to quarantine measures). Rutskoy also complained about US bomber flights close to Kamchatka Peninsula. He noted a US B-1B strategic bomber made such a flight in April, with five more recorded the following month. On May 6, US strategic bomber aircraft flew over Estonia; on May 11, through Lithuania and over the Baltic Sea; on May 20, over Sweden and Norway; on May 29, another flight close to Kamchatka; and on May 29, over Ukraine and the Black Sea. Rutskoy said that during US strategic bomber flights in the Baltic region, they had come within ten kilometers of Kaliningrad (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 10).
Despite the diatribe against the US and NATO’s military drills, Rutskoy again signaled that Moscow is willing to adjust its exercise deployments to areas pulled back from NATO borders, on a “reciprocal basis.” If the offer is genuine, it would ostensibly mark a significant policy shift in Russia’s defense posture vis-à-vis NATO. Reported plans for Kavkaz 2020 seem to suggest serious intention to scale-back on the anti-NATO exercise elements (Interfax, June 1).
Moscow’s attack on NATO military exercises is entirely to be expected, but its scaling back on strategic exercises by avoiding training forces close to alliance territory is an unusual signal. It may be rooted in trying divide and weaken NATO by presenting an image of a more benign Russia. Yet, considering the lack of transparency in the reported infection or possible death rates due to COVID-19 within the Armed Forces, it is possible that the leadership genuinely wants (or needs) to de-escalate tensions with the Alliance, at least while the pandemic lasts. Kavkaz 2020 will provide clearer evidence as to which set of considerations are predominant in motivating Moscow’s current rhetoric (Izvestia, June 7).