On July 17, Russia began massive “snap combat readiness” exercises of troops from the Western and Southern military districts, the Airborne Forces (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) and marines of the North and Pacific fleets. According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the maneuvers (which concluded on July 22) would be “A test of readiness to ensure the security of Russia’s southeast against terrorist threats and to prepare for [this fall’s] strategic Kavkaz 2020 exercise.” Shoigu revealed the snap exercise would involve 149,755 servicepersons, 26,820 pieces of heavy equipment, 414 aircraft and 106 warships and support vessels of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. The number of soldiers that took part and the scope of the snap exercise did not seem to correspond to any perceived “terrorist threats” still lingering in the North Caucasus some 20 years after Russian forces invaded semi-independent Chechnya to suppress local separatism and radical Islamism (Mil.ru, July 17).
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States have curtailed or canceled military exercises because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Defender Europe 2020 was originally going to move tens of thousands of US troops and heavy equipment to Poland and the Baltic States from the continental US. It was drastically reduced to involve only some US soldiers already deployed in Europe and local forces, without any transatlantic deployments. Moscow loudly protested the anti-Russian nature of Defender Europe 2020; but even after it was drastically reduced in scope, Russian diplomats continued to talk about the North Atlantic Alliance concentrating “an attack formation near Russian borders” (RIA Novosti, June 15). Moscow, in turn, staged its massive snap exercise this month, apparently without much concern that the drills could lead to additional coronavirus infections among Russian troops.
After the shock experience of Nazi Germany’s massive surprise invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Russian military chiefs even today continue to worship strategic and tactical surprise as the mother of all victories. Military exercises are seen not only as a means to train troops and test their ability to fight but also as the best practical way to conceal the mobilization and deployment of combat forces in preparation for an imminent attack. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Crimea in 2014 were preempted and covered up by military exercises. Russia presumes its Western opponents may act similarly, which explains why massive NATO exercises, both during the Cold War and today, have always been viewed with heightened alarm and suspicion in Moscow (RIA Novosti, June 15).
After the end of the Cold War, the two former rivals took steps to reduce East-West tensions, avoid tragic future misunderstandings and boost mutual confidence—distilled in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document. Its present version (adopted in 2011) imposes strict constraints on massive war games, requiring over a year prior notification and the invitation of observers. Moscow does not give any prior notification or invite foreign observers to its snap exercises, even if they are as large as the most recent one. Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin insisted, “Moscow acted in good will and informed its foreign partners through diplomatic channels [post factum, when the exercise had already begun] about its objectives” (Militarynews.ru, July 18). Additionally, Fomin “categorically rejected” any connection between the snap exercise and the outbreak of fighting on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border (Militarynews.ru, July 18).
The latest massive snap exercise and the forthcoming Kavkaz 2020 strategic war games are seen in Moscow as a direct response to the alleged NATO buildup of forces and destabilization of Europe’s East, the Baltic and Black Sea regions and the increasing threat this presents, “coupled with increasingly aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric.” The impromptu July drills were apparently intended to demonstrate the superb state of Russian battle readiness (Militarynews.ru, July 17). But the exact timing of the snap exercise could, indeed, be connected to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border conflict and its possible ramifications, which the Kremlin may see as posing a serious threat to Russia’s core strategic interests (see EDM, July 22). Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced his country’s military forces will support Azerbaijan against “Armenian aggression.” A possible escalation involving the deployment of Turkish troops to the South Caucasus (which Russia considers to be its strategic backyard) may lead to a direct Russo-Turkish confrontation, with the possibility of further escalation into a NATO-Russian clash not only in the strategic “Southwestern Direction” (Yugo-Zapadnoye Napravleniye), but on other fronts (see EDM, July 16).
The snap exercises took place across Russia. In the North Caucasus, on July 21, the war game activities were personally overseen by Shoigu’s first deputy and chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov (Militarynews.ru, July 21). Simultaneously, the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoi Flot—VMF) tested its ability, supported by naval jets based in Crimea, to attack NATO ships entering the Black Sea through the Bosporus (Militarynews.ru, July 20). In the Kaliningrad exclave, Baltic Fleet marines embarked on assault ships with heavy weapons to perform a mock landing operation behind enemy lines (Militarynews.ru, July 19). In Pskov Oblast, Army special forces units practiced deploying behind enemy lines to wreak death and havoc and destabilize the enemy’s rear (Militarynews.ru, July 19). The Armed Forces practiced stealthily deploying a reserve command-and-control center in Leningrad Oblast (Militarynews.ru, July 19). Whereas, Pacific Fleet marine units were airlifted by Il-76 jets from the Vladivostok region to Kamchatka (Militarynews.ru, July 19). Kamchatka is the home of Russia’s Pacific-based strategic nuclear submarines and, as such, is the main military strategic point in the region. Geographically, Kamchatka is a peninsula; but logistically it is an island, connected to the mainland only by air and sea. It is, therefore, seen as vulnerable to attack by the US and its allies, who dominate the air and the blue water. Russian planners see rapidly reinforcing Kamchatka’s defenses as essential in a run-up to war.
All these activates reveal what a conflict between the United States, backed by its allies, and Russia may look like in the present understanding of Moscow’s top brass. It would not be a “hybrid war” but something much more serious, in essence a global war on multiple fronts with at least 150,000 Russian soldiers involved (though special operations forces might carry out activities that could feasibly be considered “hybrid”). The Armenian-Azerbaijani border has been mostly quiet for a couple of days now, and the immediate threat of an escalation has receded. On July 22, the snap exercises ended. The troops and military equipment are, reportedly, being moved back to their home bases (Militarynews.ru, July 22).