The role of Russia’s Armed Forces and its proxies in Ukraine has been subject to much speculation. Throughout the crisis, the Kremlin has pursued a course of “plausible deniability” in its use of hard power, or kept the threat of large-scale invasion lurking in the background. Troop build-ups in close proximity to the Ukrainian border as well as military exercises, including “snap inspections,” raised tensions and appeared to threaten an escalation of the conflict—while the Russian leadership denied any such intention. However, during recent exercises, the Ministry of Defense not only readied peacekeeping forces, but also conducted a rehearsal of intervention using a scenario that points to Ukraine as the target (Rossiya 24 TV, August 7).
Russia’s defense minister, Army-General Sergei Shoigu, has much to be pleased about concerning his country’s military. He recently boasted that dedovshchina (institutionalized hazing) within the Armed Forces is down by 30 percent year-on-year (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, August 8). Moreover, based upon lessons drawn from the “snap inspection” exercises conducted in 2013, Shoigu ordered an intensification of the use of live ammunition in combat training; the results of which are reportedly paying dividends.
According to the commander of the Eastern Military District (MD), Lieutenant-General Sergei Surovkin, the new system of combat training in use within his MD has witnessed a fivefold increase in the quantity of ammunition consumption, and a sevenfold rise for some types of armaments. The number of field and night exercises has also grown. Surovkin noted that during the winter combat training period, the MD held 16,000 drills—2.5 times more than stipulated in the previous combat training program. In just two months of the summer training period, the quantity of “practical measures” has reached 7,500 including 6,000 weapons-training drills. Although this pattern is in evidence throughout all the MDs, the upsurge in live ammunition use in combat training is, no doubt, linked to preparations for the operational-strategic exercise Vostok (“East”) 2014, which the Eastern MD will host in September (Vostok Media, July 26).
Shoigu’s message to the Armed Forces concerning their progress is that dedovshchina is down, contract personnel numbers are up, combat training is improving, more new or modern hardware is arriving, and that the military is becoming more combat capable and combat ready. Yet, with international attention focused on the snap inspections and intermittent signs of a troop build-up close to the Ukrainian border, one recent focus on the part of the defense minister has been underestimated by observers: Shoigu wants to improve Russian peacekeeping forces and raise their combat-readiness level. Although many of these themes relate to general measures aimed at improving standards, the drive toward better peacekeeping capabilities is specifically tied to the Ukraine crisis. Shoigu’s broader efforts to enhance peacekeeping capabilities extend to raising the number of contract personnel (kontraktniki) in such units, with the aim of achieving 100-percent kontraktniki staffing, as well as boosting foreign language training in such formations (ITAR-TASS; Kommersant, August 6).
On August 5–6, Shoigu expounded some of these views about Russian peacekeeping capabilities and force development during a visit to oversee peacekeeping exercises in Samara in the Central MD. During this exercise, Ground Forces units and helicopter crews practiced various peacekeeping tasks. Mi-8 and Mi-24 transport and combat helicopters were deployed from the Tolmachevo airbase (Novosibirsk), moving troops to the Roshinsky training ground in Samara region to practice “elements of peacekeeping operations.” The Central MD statement confirmed the peacekeeping elements as “ensuring the operation of air crossing points, providing cover to columns carrying humanitarian aid, [and] evacuating ‘the injured.’ Commanders of motor-rifle battalions will control the aviation group’s actions through forward air controllers.” The exercise is due to continue until August 27. The key force involved in the exercise is the officially designated peacekeeping brigade, the 15th Motorized Rifle Brigade (ITAR-TASS; Kommersant, August 6).
However, the peacekeeping exercise in Samara reveals three major issues about the possible options being considered by the Kremlin on the Ukraine crisis. These stem from the effort to raise combat-readiness levels in the peacekeeping units, the nature of the scenario used in the Samara exercise, and Shoigu’s reported remarks to the troops; combined, these appear to indicate that the Russian leadership is seriously considering a peacekeeping operation in eastern Ukraine rather than what many feared earlier in the year as another effort to slice off territory (see EDM, August 8, 11).
The exercise tested a variety of skills, including providing opportunity for target shooting with the newly arrived BTR-82AM amphibious armored personnel carrier. Shoigu and the commander of the Central MD, Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, watched the following scenario played out: The 15th Peacekeeping Brigade was tasked with intervening on the territory of a “fictional state” during an inter-ethnic conflict between the north and the south. The fictional country was characterized as on the brink of humanitarian disaster. In this context, Russian peacekeepers were deployed on the territory of the foreign state, with an initial task of organizing a humanitarian aid corridor for the local populace and ensuring the safety of civilians in refugee camps (Vesti.ru, August 6). According to the brigade commander, the peacekeeping exercises involved engineering reconnaissance, escorting humanitarian cargo, refugee protection, medical evacuation, and ensuring the safe passage of refugees through the humanitarian aid corridor (ITAR-TASS, August 6).
Amid reports of a new troop build-up close to the Ukrainian border, Shoigu told Russian peacekeeping units to “expect the unexpected,” clearly implying that they may soon be deployed on a real peacekeeping operation (Rossiya 24 TV, August 6). These factors, in particular the nature of the exercise scenario, appear to indicate that the defense ministry is bringing peacekeeping units to a higher level of combat readiness and sending the signal to the Kremlin that the troops are ready to go.
The switch away from mere sabre rattling—combined-arms formations moving to the border areas, as well as conducting snap inspections and testing strategic mobility—to a more focused concentration on peacekeeping units may contain an important political signal. Any Russian military operation in eastern Ukraine is likely to be restricted to the insertion of peacekeepers to police a de facto frozen conflict rather than to seize more territory. However, the political choice facing President Vladimir Putin is by no means simple. While the top brass may tell him the troops are ready, committing ground forces to an open-ended peacekeeping operation may unlock a whole new set of unpredictable problems for Moscow.