Russia’s Siberian military district held major war games this summer, officially to explore avenues for military reform as well as better ways to confront terrorism. However, the simultaneous North Korean missile tests provided a stark reminder that Russia’s eastern region could face far graver challenges than military reform or terrorism.
From June 30 to July 6, Russia held large-scale military maneuvers aimed at boosting coordination between agencies in its Eastern Siberian regions. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the drill, code-named Baikal-2006, sought to boost interaction among the forces of other uniformed agencies deployed in Siberia and the Far East.
Baikal-2006 was also supposed to check the efficiency of command and control structures over a major supra-regional joint task force, instead of the usual system of command along the lines of military districts. The drill also practiced a unified logistics support system for the armed forces and other agencies, including the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service, and the Emergencies Ministry.
The drill was also supposed to explore possibilities for replacing Russia’s current system of military districts with a system of strategic commands. Last month Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced what he described as “an experiment” in the Siberian military district. Positive results from the experiment would entail creation of new “East,” “South,” and “West” commands in 2008-2010, Ivanov told a meeting of Russia’s Security Council on June 20 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 6).
The Baikal-2006 drill was held under the command of General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, and General Nikolai Rogozhkin, the Interior Ministry troops commander. The drill involved significant numbers of troops: more than 9,000 personnel from the land forces, the air force, and the Interior Ministry, as well as 1,500 units of military hardware.
The war games indicated that Russian military planners still envision conventional large-scale warfare. For example, an armored regiment of the Siberian military district practiced a 1,000-kilometer march across Siberia, according to Russian media reports. The drill also had an anti-terrorist angle, as the maneuvers involved training in searching for terrorists and destroying their bases. Detention of “suspicious elements” was also practiced, involving some 1,500 Interior Ministry troops.
Russia first launched the Far Eastern war games in 2002. In June 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Pacific Fleet’s submarine base at Rybachy in Kamchatka to observe the Mobility-2004 exercises. In July 2005, the Vostok-2005 drill was held in the Far Eastern military district, followed one month later by unprecedented joint war-games with China.
The Chinese connection was mentioned during the Baikal-2006 drill. Russia and China will continue joint military maneuvers, Baluyevsky announced in Ulan-Ude on July 4. “The next exercises are to be held in Russia,” he said, but he provided no timeframe or other details. However, commenting on Baikal-2006’s proximity to the border with China, Baluyevsky said, “Joint exercises by Russian and Chinese armed forces come as proof that military activity by Russia and China are not aimed against one another” (RIA-Novosti, July 4).
The performance of the Army units, Interior Ministry troops, Air Force, and Air Defense units earned good marks, Baluyevsky was quoted as saying in a statement by the Siberian military district’s press service. Baluyevsky also insisted that the Russian missile warning systems detected all North Korean missile launches.
In the meantime, some Russian media outlets claimed that the July 4 North Korean missile tests had come as a surprise to the Russian military. Kommersant alleged that the Russian early warning system had failed to detect the launches, while the Defense Ministry allegedly got initial information on North Korean missiles from the Internet. Baluyevsky did not comment on the North Korean tests for nine hours after the launches, the daily noted (Kommersant, July 6).
In the immediate aftermath of the Baikal-2006 drill, Baluyevsky insisted that the ballistic missiles test-fired by North Korea fell in the ocean far from the Russian coast. “All missiles fell in the Sea of Japan approximately at the 40th parallel, far away from Russian territory,” Baluyevsky told the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, implying that the missiles had landed no less than 350 kilometers (220 miles) from the Russian coast. Commenting on claims that Russia’s radar network had failed to detect Pyongyang’s launches, Baluyevsky said: “I would not claim that Russia’s Armed Forces are unable to accomplish their objectives” (RIA-Novosti, July 7).
Nonetheless, some Russian media outlets questioned the relevance of the war games, given the tense atmosphere caused by the North Korean tests. Baikal-2006 was held in Siberia’s vast territories at a time when the country’s eastern shores nearly came under a North Korean missile attack, Nezavisimaya gazeta wrote. It raises the inevitable question of whether the Defense Ministry and the General Staff have their priorities right when they assess a potential military threat, the daily wrote (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 6).
The Baikal-2006 drill appears to indicate Russia’s interest in continued military reforms, namely in replacing its outdated system of military districts, which dates back to the 19th century. However, critics argue that Russian military reformers may have underestimated unconventional threats, such as North Korean missiles.