Russia’s annual major autumnal exercises are usually accompanied by a loud propaganda campaign advertising the country’s military might; this year, however, official reporting on the Tsentr 2019 war games was rather low key. On Friday (September 20), President Vladimir Putin, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, observed the tanks advancing through the staged explosions to conquer an imaginary “terrorist state” in the Orenburg steppes for less than an hour and declared himself satisfied (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, September 20). The official (and highly inflated) total number of involved troops is 128,000, which is about three times lower than that for the Vostok 2018 exercises last year; moreover, no significant redeployment of mobile units was performed this year, even though some elements of the mobilization system were tested (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 13). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu distributed the usual awards, perhaps with a sigh of relief about avoiding mid-air collisions and crash-landings, which have repeatedly bedeviled the Russian Aerospace Forces since January (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 11; Novaya Gazeta, January 23).
The strategic design for Tsentr 2019 was focused on testing Russia’s capabilities to project military power into Central Asia; but the political will for such engagements in this conflict-rich region is rather in doubt. As troops staged mock battles on Russian military training grounds, a real armed clash broke out along a contested border area between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 17). Russia has military bases in both states and moved some additional troops for exercises at the Kant base in Kyrgyzstan; but its forces were not capable of mediating the border conflict (Kommersant, September 18). Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was Putin’s guest of honor at the main Tsentr exercise site, and all the proper declarations about the “brotherhood in arms” were duly issued (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, September 20). Earlier this year, Putin tried to mediate in the quarrel between Jeenbekov and former president Almazbek Atambayev, but the sitting leader still opted to arrest his predecessor by dispatching special forces to take his residence by siege (Radio Svoboda, August 8; see EDM, September 5).
Like during last year’s Vostok drills, Chinese troops were invited to partake in this month’s exercises in order to demonstrate the strength of Moscow and Beijing’s “strategic partnership”—which in fact is somewhat shaky in Central Asia on account of the region being a key target for China’s economic conquest (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, September 20). For the first time, Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and Chinese Xian H-6 strategic bombers practiced performing a joint strike on a “terrorist armored formation”; but such feats of arms are hardly plausible in the messy regional conflicts either country might involve itself in (Krasnaya Zvezda, September 20). Another novelty was the symbolic participation of small military units from India and Pakistan, which was supposed to demonstrate the diversification of Russian military ties in Asia, complementing the centrality of its ambivalent military quasi-alliance with China (Russiancouncil.ru, August 19).
What spoiled the impression of perfect combat readiness of Russian forces was last week’s mini-clash in the Sea of Japan, where a flotilla of North Korean poachers put up armed resistance against Russian border guard patrol craft (Newsru.com, September 17). North Korea’s illegal fishing practices increased exponentially this year, and Russian border guards have been hard pressed to protect their country’s fishery stocks (Moscow Echo, September 17). A submarine of the Pacific Fleet notably performed a test-launch of cruise missile in sync with the Tsentr 2019 exercises, but such capabilities are useless in real-life situations, where Moscow is reluctant to discipline a troublemaking neighbor (RIA Novosti, September 16).
In an odd coincidence, Russia staged an exercise for its air-defense capabilities in the Astrakhan region two days after two major Saudi Arabian oil facilities came under an unexpected and devastating air attack (Gazeta.ru, September 19). Putin found it opportune to offer the Saudi regime Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system, omitting to mention that this much-advertised weapon system has never been tested in real combat and is ineffectual against drones (RIA Novosti, September 16; see EDM, September 19). The sharp escalation of tensions in the Gulf has revealed the shortage of both Russia’s military reach and diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. The initiative to establish an international mechanism for promoting confidence and transparency in the Gulf region has fallen perfectly flat (TASS, September 19). And the newly upgraded Khemimim airbase and Tartus naval facility have not increased Russia’s power-projecting range but instead become vulnerable foreign assets that need plenty of protection (Izvestia, September 20). Their defense can only be ensured via close cooperation with Iran. And while this puts Moscow in an awkward position vis-à-vis Riyadh regarding the Gulf crisis, the Saudi-Iranian conflict is also beneficial for Russia’s interests as far as oil prices are concerned.
Moscow’s seasonal war games, meanwhile, are doing little to lift the increasingly discontented Russian public opinion. The protracted contraction of incomes is now widely recognized as a “new normal,” which erases any incentives for business expansion or expectations of decent employment among the youth (Open Media, September 19). Militarization does not foment widescale patriotic pride; rather, it is perceived as a wasteful expenditure of resources for the benefit of lobbies and clans engaged in corrupt squabbling (Rosbalt, September 20). Despite heavy propaganda against the United States, the propensity for Russians to blame Washington for their economic problems is dissipating, and 42 percent of respondents now express a positive attitude toward the US, while 44 percent remain negative (Levada.ru, September 10). Street protests in Moscow and most other cities may have dwindled since the recent local elections, but the anger against the authorities persists, taking such unusual forms as wide online support for the cause of a Siberian shaman who has embarked on a long walk to Moscow in order to exorcise Putin from the Kremlin (Novaya Gazeta, September 21).
The authorities have no answer to the social challenges generated by Russia’s economic stagnation and cannot realistically hope to orchestrate a turnaround in the public mood by launching another foreign military intervention. Any attempt to rescue a “brotherly” autocratic regime in Central Asia from an uprising is certain to be hugely unpopular, so the design of the Tsentr 2019 exercises goes far beyond the realm of what is politically possible. The Kremlin court, however, inhabits a political reality of its own ambitions, assumptions and fears. Putin’s courtiers are eager to believe in Russia’s military superiority, and the top brass excels at polishing these illusions. Sober risk assessments are in short supply, while the menu of bad blunders remains extensive.