Between August 3 and 31, forces from the four Russian fleets—Northern, Pacific, Black and Baltic—took part in the country’s annual “Ocean Shield” large-scale naval military exercises. Supervised by the Military-Maritime Fleet’s (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) commander-in-chief, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, Ocean Shield 2020 involved a broad range of forces, including naval aviation, combat ships and support vessels, anti-missile/aircraft systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and naval infantry (Interfax, August 3). The preparatory stage of the exercises was launched at the end of July, with the first stage then officially starting at the beginning of August and running for three weeks in the Baltic Sea area. It involved anti-submarine and anti-aircraft operations, torpedo and artillery training, as well as elements of amphibious warfare, which culminated in a simulated landing at the Khmelevka polygon (Rubaltic.ru, August 4). More than 30 vessels, 20 aircraft, over 3,000 marines and approximately 400 units of heavy/auxiliary machinery were cumulatively employed during this stage (TASS, August 3).
In the second stage (August 24–31), the maneuvers shifted to the northern Pacific (Otr-online.ru, August 29). Despite the shorter period of time devoted to the drills in the northeast, this operative theater—which primarily comprised forces from the Pacific Fleet, the best-equipped of Russia’s fleets in 2017, 2018 and 2019 (Mil.ru, December 2, 2017; RIA Novosti, December 3, 2018; Mil.ru, November 29, 2019)—occupied a central place in the whole Ocean Shield 2020 exercise. As noted by Admiral Yevmenov prior to the official start of the second stage, “[T]he Pacific Fleet will most certainly remain the most critical instrument in the system of Russia’s national security, and [a tool] capable of preempting all types of threats in the sea- and ocean-related directions as well as [a means] of boosting stability and mutual trust in the whole Asian-Pacific region” (Marine.gov.ru, July 8).
Out of more than fifty types of maneuvers performed during the second stage, the emphasis was clearly put on the following five main macro-dimensions:
First, the integrated training of amphibious landings, protected by naval artillery gunfire from small warships (corvettes). This operation was practiced for the first time ever under the challenging conditions of the Chukchi Sea coastline (Mil.ru, September 1).
Second, the integrated use of surface and sub-surface naval forces. For instance, the missile cruiser Varyag and the nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Omsk jointly fired at targets located in open water in the Bering Sea. Reportedly, the maritime targets were destroyed by missiles launched from the Vulkan complex (mounted on the Varyag) and P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles (launched from the Omsk), from a distance of more than 450 and 320 kilometers, respectively (Rambler, August 30). Additionally, the K-300P Bastion-P mobile coastal-defense missile system—delivered to the theater after a simulated 50-kilometer raid—managed to destroy a target in the Gulf of Anadyr with the P-800 Oniks supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (Mil.ru, August 27).
Third, the use of UAVs—a trend that has become an integral part of virtually all exercises carried out by Russia. Specifically, the Granat-4 UAV—incidentally, previously spotted in the Donbas region, operated by separatist forces (InformNapalm, June 9, 2018)—was used to transmit information related to the accuracy of missile strikes in real time (Rambler, August 30). Furthermore, Orlan-10 medium-range, multi-purpose UAVs were employed to correct naval gunfire aiming at hidden, coastal targets that could not be spotted by the naval forces due to the challenging local geographic conditions.
Fourth, the improvement of naval logistics and transportation capabilities. In this regard, the key role was ascribed to the large landing ships (BDK) Nikolay Vilkov, Oslyabya, Peresvet and Admiral Nevelskoy, which rehearsed loading military equipment and personnel from the unequipped coast. The loading of the marines was carried out in Desantnaya Bay (inside the Ussuri Bay, Primorsky Krai). The BDK took on board BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, Grad multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), self-propelled artillery and about 300 marines. Furthermore, in parallel with this operation, participating forces simulated a search-and-rescue mission in the northwestern part of the Bering Sea, with naval aviation and Ka-27PS helicopters, in particular, playing a key role. The helicopters performed takeoffs and landings on the deck of the largest surface ship of the Pacific Fleet, the Marshal Krylov (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, August 28).
Fifth, the VMF allocated a crucial role to naval aviation, including MiG-31 high-altitude interceptors and Il-38 anti-submarine aircraft. As Yevmenov specifically highlighted, “[W]ithin the scope of the aerial exercises, naval aviation crews demonstrated professionalism of the highest level, confirming their combat readiness and preparedness to solve tasks in any part of the world ocean, under any circumstances.” He also emphasized that “[Russian] aviation operating in the outer layer of Russian territorial waters was closely watched by NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] fighter jets” (TV Zvezda, August 31).
In assessing the preliminary results of Ocean Shield 2020, Admiral Yevmenov stated that “preliminary analysis of the exercises demonstrated the high level of skills of Russia’s Pacific Fleet” (Redstar.ru, September 2).
But additionally, last month’s large-scale naval maneuvers in the North Pacific reflect Moscow’s view of the military-political situation in the wider Arctic region. First, despite some official rhetoric to the contrary, Russia increasingly perceives the Arctic as an area of confrontation—not cooperation or dialogue. As stated by the deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, Mikhail Popov, “[T]oday the Arctic region has become a zone where geopolitical, geo-strategic and economic interests of the world’s leading powers have collided […] the United States is seeking to maintain constant surveillance of the Northern Fleet and the Russian Arctic zone” (Interfax, August 19). Russia, thus, aims to demonstrate, through exercises such as Ocean Shield 2020 and the re-establishment of military infrastructure in the High North, readiness to defend its dominant role in the Arctic region—an area endowed with natural resources and viewed as a nascent major global commercial/transportation hub. Second, according to Yevmenov, the Ocean Shield exercises in the north Pacific manifested “our return to the Arctic… The main goal of the exercises is Chukotka” (Rambler, August 30). Specifically, Russia’s primary objective was the rehearsal of a potential small-scale confrontation in and around the Bering Strait area—a zone of high conflict potential, where Russia’s claims are becoming more audible and ambitions more visible (see EDM, March 14, 2019 and January 30, 2020).