As the dust settled, following the conclusion of the September 5–10 Kavkaz 2016 military exercise, the Russian Armed Forces entered into a budgetary battle with the Ministry of Finance. Russian Duma elections are scheduled for next Sunday (September 18); therefore, the process of drafting a 2017 state budget was postponed, together with unpopular measures like cutting spending and raising taxes to trim the growing deficit. The election itself is highly unlikely to matter much, since the new Duma will almost still be little more than a rubber stamp institution under the thumb of the Kremlin. But now, the postponed sequestration decisions must finally be taken. The finance ministry has reportedly been advocating a 6 percent cut in defense spending to match an overall federal budget sequestration of 10 percent. The military is pushing back; a nominal reduction of 6 percent would, in fact, mean a much more considerable cut in rearmament procurement because of inflation. A lack of competition means that inflation in the defense industry tends to be higher than the predicted average national level of over 6 percent. According to Admiral (ret.) Vladimir Komoyedov, former commander of the Black Sea Fleet and chair of the defense committee in the outgoing Duma, “Any cut to defense spending is untimely and could seriously undermine national security” (Interfax, September 9).
Officials initially announced that the number of troops taking part in Kavkaz 2016 was 12,500, but this turned out to be a typical Russian (Soviet) disguise (see EDM, September 8). As the massive exercise wound up, the number two in command of the Russian military, the chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister, Army-General Valery Gerasimov, suddenly announced the true number of men involved to be 120,000. This act of transparency could reflect the desire of the Russian military to stress the necessity for massive defense spending. It was followed up this week (September 14), at a special press briefing at the Ministry of Defense, with Gerasimov confirming the 120,000 number. He explained that the previous 12,500 figure referred to the number of servicemen involved in live-fire exercises on specially designated shooting grounds during Kavkaz 2016. Some 480 metric tons of live munitions were used up during Kavkaz-2016, together with 35,000 tons of fuel (Mil.ru, September 14).
The Russian air force (Voyenno Kosmichedskie Sily—VKS) was massively deployed in Kavkaz 2016, with some “100 to 120 airplanes in the air simultaneously.” The VKS jets and anti-aircraft units trained to refute a massive enemy air and cruise missile assault. Gerasimov also boasted the Black Sea Fleet has the capacity to destroy its potential enemy before it leaves port “or in the Bosporus—we have targeting reconnaissance capabilities with a range of 500 kilometers and land-based Bastion anti-ship missiles with a range of 350 km in addition to submarines with [long-range] Kalibr cruise missiles, naval attack jets, strategic bombers with cruise missiles, and more.” According to Gerasimov, “The enemy will never get close” (Interfax, September 14).
The “strategic southwest direction” is seen as a priority by the Russian military, insisted Gerasimov. A new motor-rifle division (the 150th) is being formed in the Southern Military District, together with a new field army: “They are still in formation, but already took part in Kavkaz 2016.” Some 4,000 reservists were called up to take part in this year’s Kavkaz exercise. But unlike its Soviet predecessor, the present Russian military is earnestly preparing to fight a major ground war without a massive mobilization of reservists, using only the standing Armed Forces. Gerasimov told journalists that front-line combat units—the so-called battalion tactical groups (BTG)—will be primarily manned by contract soldiers to increase their battle readiness, as well as new special logistical field units. According to Gerasimov, the Russian army together with the marine corps and airborne troops (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska—VDV) have 66 standing BTGs—reinforced mechanized battalions with additional armor (tanks), heavy guns, other artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), anti-aircraft capabilities, sapper or pioneer detachments, as well as other auxiliaries that may be added in accordance with possible missions. A BTG can be from 600 to 900 men strong. Gerasimov announced that in the coming several months (“up to the New Year”) the number of BTGs in the Russian military will be increased almost 50 percent to 96—“to have two BTGs in every brigade or regiment.” Next year comes a further increase of BTGs—to 115, and in early 2018—to 125 BTGs (Ng.ru, September 15).
Last July, at its summit in Warsaw, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decided to deploy four joint allied BTGs in the Baltic republics and in Poland to counter the Russian threat (see EDM, July 14). Now, Moscow is replying by fielding almost a hundred BTGs. If Gerasimov’s comments can be taken at face value, by next January Moscow will have the capability to fight a major regional ground war at less than a weeks’ notice with a force of 150,000–200,000 men (the army, VDV and marine BTGs, supported by the navy, the VKS and other auxiliaries). Such a war in the Baltic region does not seem likely—Russia is clearly not eager or ready for a head-on showdown with NATO. Despite a clear numerical superiority in BTGs, there are deficiencies in Russia’s modern equipment as the costly rearmament program is only taking off while the West has a clear superiority in the air and on the sea. Equally, a massive ground incursion of Russian troops into Syria to help President Bashar al-Assad win the civil war there does not seem probable. Ukraine looks like the only viable major ground war target in the near term (beginning in January) that could warrant this announced massive increase in BTGs, though Gerasimov specifically emphasized “Kavkaz 2016 was not aimed at Ukraine” (Militarynews.ru, September 14).
A massive force of some 70–80 Russian BTGs alongside the separatist Russian-led regular forces already in Donbas could smash the Ukrainian military, together with its aging weapons, bringing Ukraine’s quest for true independence to an abrupt end. Kavkaz 2016 could have been an exercise to prepare for the eventuality the West may intervene to save Ukraine by sending naval and air forces to the Black Sea region—to be met and deterred by the VKS and the Black Sea Fleet. On September 9, as the Kavkaz exercise was coming to a close, the Russian military test-fired a modernized Topol intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Gerasimov refused to deny or confirm the ICBM launch was part of a possible nuclear escalation scenario being rehearsed during Kavkaz 2016 (Interfax, September 14).