An apparently random movement of a Russian Special Forces battalion located in the Central Military District (MD) may be an indication that the General Staff is increasingly concerned about future security in Central Asia. Moreover, it may be an additional sign of the persistent experimentation and policy reversals on reform that are endemic to the Armed Forces. In order to understand the significance of the redeployment of the Special Forces unit in Novosibirsk Oblast, it is important to note the role played by similar forces assigned to rapid reaction elements of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and their recent exercises in Belarus. These elite units retain higher readiness levels than the rest of the Russian Ground Forces and seem to be rehearsing changes in operational tactics (http://www.kurer-sreda.ru/2012/05/15/66818).
The Berdsk Special Forces brigade in Novosibirsk Oblast was eliminated in late 2009, as part of the wider transition occurring within the Russian Armed Forces. Following its abolition, the only remaining Special Forces brigade in the then Siberian MD was located in Irkutsk. However, in May 2012, the brigade command in Irkutsk sent one of its battalions to Berdsk in a move suggestive of a higher-level decision to recreate the Berdsk brigade. Among the 400 to 500 personnel deployed to Berdsk in the Central MD are reconnaissance teams evaluating the precise future location of the brigade’s permanent base. Although the Defense Ministry’s decision in 2009 was resisted by Duma members, it was implemented rapidly despite critics highlighting that such higher readiness units were essential for the country’s security. The recent move and likely reversal of the earlier axing of the Berdsk brigade also reportedly signals the General Staff’s awareness of changes in “modern warfare and foreign policy,” particularly related to “China and Central Asia” (http://www.kurer-sreda.ru/2012/05/15/66818).
The Russian military intelligence’s Voyska Spetsialnogo Naznacheniya (Spetsnaz) brigade in Berdsk was disbanded on December 1, 2009, although the Defense Ministry never offered a convincing explanation as to why this elite formation did not fit the “New Look” of the Russian Army. Both the Berdsk and Irkutsk Spetsnaz brigades played combat roles in the military campaigns in Chechnya. The Berdsk brigade participated in the May 2009 Victory Day celebrations, and on November 1, 2009, its members privately gathered to mark its 25th anniversary. Among the reported problems underlying the political decision to abolish the brigade was the failure to recruit enough contract personnel and secure sufficient accommodations for its officers. In the final days of the Berdsk Spetsnaz, some personnel were moved to the Irkutsk brigade while most were discharged from military service. The vague justification concerning how the brigade may not fit the reform of the Armed Forces proved to be of little value in its effort to survive (http://kurer-sreda.ru/2009/11/10/17346; http://kurer-sreda.ru/2009/10/27/16828).
The Defense Ministry has been predictably silent on the battalion moving from Irkutsk to Berdsk in order to lay the foundation for the brigade’s recreation, offering no justification for the latest reform reversal. However, after the three years since the formation was disbanded, former officers doubt that the Berdsk brigade can be resurrected quickly. Nonetheless, the reasons to implement such a policy volte face may well lie in the nature of the location, and the General Staff’s concern about the future security of Central Asia following the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan. The Central MD acts as a reserve for the other three MDs and as a strategic reserve to support any Russian military operations in Central Asia. The oblique reference to foreign policy shifts and China could suggest Moscow’s concern about the remote risk to Russian interests resulting from unilateral Chinese military action in Central Asia. But its timing has not coincided with any obvious deterioration in the security environment in Central Asia; rather, it follows the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as the Russian President. Putin has staked his six-year presidential term on the pursuit of closer Eurasian integration, and his forthcoming trips to Belarus and Kazakhstan are consistent with this policy. By playing the “Afghanistan after 2014” card, Moscow attempts to reverse its declining security influence in Central Asia at the expense of other actors (http://www.kurer-sreda.ru/2012/05/15/66818).
Earlier in May, the Belarusian and Russian Armed Forces conducted a joint military exercise in the countryside of Gozha, Hrodna Province, on the western border of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. The training range at Gozhski, which hosts the Belarusian 6th Motorized Rifle Brigade, witnessed a bilateral exercise involving the 103rd Mobile Brigade of Belarusian Special Forces and units for the Russian 76th Airborne Assault Division in the lead roles. The joint force grouping, also involving units drawn from other power ministries, rehearsed operations against “illegal armed formations” with an emphasis on increasing the speed of insertion of troops and changes to tactics used during operation. These units are important for the CSTO as they form part of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (Kollektivnyye Sily Operativnogo Reagirovaniya – KSOR) created in June 2009. As well as allowing Belarusian forces an opportunity to prepare for the operational-strategic exercise Zapad 2013, this bilateral exercise also permitted a familiarization on both sides ahead of the KSOR exercise in Armenia in September 2012 and involvement in a CSTO peacekeeping exercise later this year in Kazakhstan (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 24).
Moscow will try to maximize the potential security role of the CSTO ahead of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Putin’s upbeat comments about the future of the CSTO at its recent summit in Moscow on May 15, further underscores its potential as a tool of Russian foreign policy. The challenges and limits of pursuing such policies mainly relate to the unpredictable nature of the defense and security policy of each Central Asian CSTO member state – especially Uzbekistan, which tends to remain critical of the organization’s initiatives. This could be further complicated after Uzbekistan’s scheduled presidential transition in 2015. Recreating the Berdsk Spetsnaz brigade, if fully implemented and not itself subject to later reversal, will form part of Russia’s contingency planning for operations in support of its CSTO allies. Only time will tell as to whether this fresh policy twist in the precise battle order of the Russian Armed Forces constitutes a genuine response to a perceived shift in Moscow’s threat assessment (http://www.kurer-sreda.ru/2012/05/15/66818).