Russia’s recent “snap inspection” military exercises in Western and Southern Military Districts (see EDM, March 19) and the defense ministry’s plans to reinforce conventional deployments in Crimea (see EDM, March 27) generate an impression of revived Russian military power. However, Russia’s relatively careful and low-scale use of military power in Ukraine since February 2014, problems identified during the various snap inspection exercises, as well as limitations in the capacity of the defense ministry to solve water supply issues in Crimea appear to offer ample evidence of deep and systemic Russian military weakness (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 1).
Although the weaknesses in Russian conventional military power stem from manpower issues such as the under-manning of units or the presence of large numbers of conscripts and an absence of a professional non-commissioned officer corps as well as continued weapons and hardware modernization, these have a particular manifestation in the area of strategic mobility. Russia’s “snap inspection” exercises in all strategic directions since 2013 have prioritized testing and modifying strategic mobility capacity: that is, the capability to move troops and equipment rapidly from one part of the country to another designated area to reinforce troop groupings. These exercises, also used to intimidate Ukraine and for strategic messaging purposes to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), involve different types of combat elements, combined with combat support and combat service support. Of course, these exercises have revealed continued deficiencies in strategic mobility. The most recent snap inspection, which began with a focus on the Arctic Region and then developed across other parts of the country, is consistent with efforts to reinforce Crimea and strengthen force groupings in the Arctic and in western Russia (Interfax, March 18; RIA Novosti, March 17; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 16).
The large-scale snap inspection exercise, staged over six days, also rehearsed troop deployment to Kaliningrad. According to Russian military analyst Ilya Kramnik, Moscow’s renewed interest in using strategic operational exercises to test strategic mobility stems from Zapad 2009. The specific interest in the reinforcement of Kaliningrad has witnessed increased momentum since the mid-2000s. The recent exercise involved military units from almost every branch and arm of service delivered by land, sea and air to conduct training in unfamiliar settings (Lenta.ru, March 22).
Kramnik stressed the importance of mobility in terms of the Arctic Region, since they are so tied to air- and sea-based insertion. “It relies first and foremost on reestablishment of infrastructure, which supports, if necessary, the redeployment of troops by sea and by air and not requiring large numbers of personnel for daily service and security. Thirteen airfields, radar stations, repaired ports and other facilities allow forces to return quickly ‘in a threatening period.’ And to control the surrounding sea and air space—a rather sufficiently compact grouping based here on a permanent basis” (Lenta.ru, March 22). The author then suggests that these exercises are driven by Moscow confronting the state’s military weaknesses, by recognizing a lack of military manpower to defend the entire country, thus forcing increased attention to generating forces in any strategic direction in order to support forces deployed during a crisis on a particular axis.
However, despite this explanation concerning the need for enhanced strategic manoeuvers, Kramnik cites Colonel (retired) Viktor Murakhovskiy on self-sufficient force groupings: “Today we do not have a single self-sufficient grouping on any of our [strategic] directions. This is the main reason for the great attention the Armed Forces leadership allocates to the potential for redeploying forces.” Indeed, Kramnik emphasizes that Russia’s military strategic mobility is also hampered by inadequate progress on the modernization of the fleet of transport aircraft (Lenta.ru, March 22).
Further evidence of the limits of the transformed logistical support system, Material-Technical Support (Materialno-Tekhnicheskogeo Obespechniea—MTO), has emerged, linked to supplying water to Crimea. The MTO will commence laying trunk pipelines in Crimea from April 1, to provide fresh drinking water in Kerch, Feodosia and Sudak and help agricultural enterprises. This will involve around 500 conscripts and contract MTO personnel laying a total of 378 kilometers of trunk pipelines in Crimea (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 30). Yet, expert estimates concerning water requirements on the peninsula linked to agriculture, industry and tourism suggest up to 244 million cubic meters could be needed annually—which cannot be resolved by this latest effort to use the MTO (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 30). Depending on the specific demands produced by supporting forces in conflict situations, the MTO can easily be exposed to overstretch.
These weaknesses are important in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and have implications for NATO. The Russian Armed Forces lack the capacity to deploy and sustain military forces beyond the country’s borders over lengthy periods. During the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has used small-scale insertions of forces, fueled local rebellions and generally fanned the flames of a conflict on its border. However, it is unlikely that Moscow would want to commit to a much larger insertion of forces, due to issues surrounding force sustainment and potential diminution of its control over conflict escalation (Rossiya 1, March 15). Indeed, in this context, it is highly unlikely that Russia can withstand the severe demands placed upon its combat service support to help sustain operations during a wider regional conflict. Moreover, it simply lacks the conventional capacity to commit forces to a general European war, which means that as its involvement in future conflict escalates, so too would its reliance upon nuclear first use.
A notable example is in Moscow’s efforts to reinforce Crimea. While much attention has focused on the conventional reinforcement, which according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has involved creating an additional 96 military units on the peninsula since March 2014, there is clear evidence that nuclear reliance lurks in the background. That is coupled with the creation of new units in Crimea and heavy weapons transfers; there is also reportedly movement of the platforms that could, if President Vladimir Putin authorizes it, carry nuclear warheads (RT, March 30). The latter is consistent with Putin’s remarks during the recently broadcast documentary on seizing Crimea, in which he said he was willing to place nuclear forces on alert had certain scenarios unfolded. He undoubtedly meant this as a warning to other state actors to weigh carefully their appetite to risk conflict escalation during the present crisis. However, this reliance on playing the nuclear card also offers strong evidence that the Kremlin is all too aware of the limits of Russian conventional military forces (Rossiya 1, March 15).