This week the Russian armed forces began month-long strategic military exercises called Stability 2008. According to the Defense Ministry, the scenario suggests “a worsening of the situation and an escalation of crisis situations into military confrontation” (www.mil.ru, September 20). The composition of the forces and ministries that will be involved in the exercise does not leave any doubt—it’s a scenario of a nuclear war in which Russia and its ally Belarus will face the United States. and NATO.
The Russian military, intelligence and special services, and other executive government agencies and ministries, including local governments, together with their Belarusian counterparts must jointly “liquidate military conflicts, insuring strategic stability.” The exercises will involve mobilization and deployment to forward positions of forces in the Moscow and Far East Military Districts and the deployment of the navy in the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Baltic Sea, and the Pacific. Three air armies and one air defense corps, the Strategic Rocket Troops, strategic bombers, and Space Troops will be involved as well as Belarusian military formations. This exercise involves all of Russia’s nuclear forces, most of the battle-ready navy, and the Air Force, but only partially the army. This implies a predominantly indirect war with a far-off enemy—the United States—on sea, in the air, and in space, using nuclear weapons, with a limited engagement of army ground forces (www.mil.ru, September 20).
Of course, only a fraction of the manpower and hardware that would be needed in a real military confrontation between Russia and NATO will be deployed during Stability-2008 maneuvers. This is mostly a staff exercise to prepare the military, the Interior Ministry, the special services and civilian executive government to work together in a possible future confrontation with the West. Russia may some day move to secure its vital interests and defend its citizens (as was the case with Georgia in August) in other parts of the former USSR, say, in Ukraine’s Crimea. The West may decide to intervene. According to Air Force chief General Alexander Zelin, during Stability 2008, Russia’s air defenses will repulse an enemy air onslaught, while Russia will use its strategic bombers and other nuclear capabilities to enforce peace and “stability” (Interfax-AVN, September 22).
According to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, the maneuvers have been planned for a year; they are not a reaction to current political events (RIA-Novosti, September 23). Indeed, such massive military exercises with an outright anti-Western scenario could not have been improvised at short notice in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia in August. Apparently, the present atmosphere of East-West confrontation was envisaged long before by military planners in the Defense Ministry just as the invasion of Georgia itself was planned in advance.
While military staffs and other parts of the executive branch will be preparing to meet the challenges and consequences of an air, sea, and space confrontation with the West on home turf, a small naval force led by the nuclear cruiser Pyotr Velikii will sail to the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean to show the flag and the finger to the United States, Russia’s archrival. Long-range bombers will fly out to far-off waters and coordinate their maneuvers with the Pyotr Velikii (see EDM, September 11).
Russian journalists and TV crews specially selected by military authorities have been posted on board the Pyotr Velikii to cover the planned two-month voyage (RIA-Novosti, September 23). Since the ship sailed on September 23, Russian state TV has been showing daily satellite-transmitted reports on the progress of the mission from on board. The exercises Stability-2008 and the voyage of the naval force are getting massive coverage in the government-controlled Russian press. It was reported that the Pyotr Velikii will visit the Russian naval outpost in Tartus, Syria, that ten Russian warships are already in Syria, and that “aircraft carriers and cruisers may be based there” in the future. The visit of the Pyotr Velikii to Syria, it is said, will transform Russia into a naval superpower (Izvestia, September 22).
There is, in fact, not a single Russian warship based in the run-down Soviet-era naval outpost in Tartus, and the Pyotr Velikii is too big to dock there. Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is again in disrepair and not ready to sail. The Kuznetsov was built in a shipyard in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Russia does not have a shipyard capable of building any more carriers (Kommersant, RIA-Novosti, September 24).
The voyage of the Pyotr Velikii and the Stability 2008 exercises seem to be mostly publicity stunts to boost anti-Western propaganda at home and send a clear message to Washington. Russia’s rulers want to be taken seriously and can make trouble in different parts of the world if not respected; but they are ready to make deals: Do not send warships to the Black Sea to help Georgia and we will not go into your backyard; respect our sphere of influence and we will respect yours—or else. The offer resembles youth gangland politics, but Vladimir Putin grew up in a bad neighborhood in St. Petersburg.