The Swiss Connection: Enhancing Russia’s Mountain Warfare Capabilities

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 138

Swiss Mountain troops (Source:

A ground-breaking agreement between Moscow and Berne will boost Russian mountain warfare capabilities, and has implications for security in the North Caucasus. The bilateral defense deal also plays a less well publicized role in addressing shortcomings in the transformation of the Russian armed forces. On July 8, the Russian defense ministry’s Zvezda TV reported on a meeting in Moscow between delegations led by Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, and his Swiss counterpart, Lieutenant-General Andre Blattmann. The military-technical cooperation agreement signed by Makarov and Blattmann was presented as testimony to the strength of the emerging defense relationship. General Makarov confirmed that Russian officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and soldiers will be trained in each country by the Swiss armed forces; this will also focus on enhancing the capabilities of Russia’s mountain warfare units (Zvezda TV, July 8).

Despite Switzerland’s neutral status, the country will play a supporting role in facilitating security in the North Caucasus. Swiss neutrality is an alluring factor for Moscow, since the cooperation is less politically sensitive than assistance from NATO members. The agreement has long been in the pipeline, with a number of drivers compelling the Russian defense ministry to enter targeted military-technical cooperation. In March 2010, Makarov visited Berne to discuss developing bilateral military cooperation and specifically explored mountain warfare training. In addition to his meetings with Blattmann, the Russian chief of the General Staff was briefed about a tank and ordnance training center in Thun as well as the Alpine training center in Andermatt. (ITAR-TASS, Interfax, March 14-15, 2010). On March 15-16, 2010, General Makarov visited the Swiss mountain warfare facility in Andermatt and explored sharing the experience of “training techniques.” It was clear from the probing by Makarov on the structure and organization of the Swiss armed forces that he arrived in Berne well briefed on these issues.

By August 2010, Krasnaya Zvezda made the connection much more explicitly between Swiss-Russian military cooperation and mountain warfare training. The link was to the mountain warfare brigades already formed in Russia, and how these needed further development in the context of the “new look.” In the article, Vladimir Mokhov stressed that Russia lacked expertise and qualified specialists in this area. The weakness was being addressed internally, but required much deeper measures to bring about marked improvement. The defense ministry enlisted the assistance of the Russian Mountaineering Federation. From August 23 to September 16, 2010, the Third-All Russia Training Session for professional instructors in mountain training was held at the Bezengi mountain sports training center in Kabardino-Balkaria. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrey Bobrun, the press spokesman for the commander of the North Caucasus Military District (now South MD) said attention was devoted to the choice of equipment as well as safety, survival and medical first aid (Krasnaya Zvezda, August 20, 2010).

In 2007, the Russian defense ministry formed two mountain warfare brigades, both based in the North Caucasus: 33rd Motorized Rifle Brigade (MRB) in Botlikh, Dagestan and the 34th MRB in Zelenchukskaya, Karachay-Cherkessia. These MRBs were designated as mountain warfare units specifically tasked with assisting in the protection of Russia’s southern borders. A 45-minute report on Zvezda TV on March 17, 2009 highlighted the elite nature of these brigades and the cost of 150,000 rubles ($5,342) to equip one mountain warfare soldier. The 34th MRB (mountain) was profiled in the report, with servicemen shown carrying out various tasks including a 5 kilometer run, using training simulators and training in France. Despite the glamorous publicity, senior commanders were in no doubt that further assistance was needed. The 34th MRB boasts the best rock-climbing wall in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and a mountain obstacle course specially designed for specialist training. Subunits are also trained in additional specialized training centers, located in North Ossetia-Alaniya, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Kavminvody, for more arduous rock-climbing training (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 3, 2010; Zvezda TV, March 17, 2009).

Security factors influencing seeking foreign assistance for these brigades relates to the evolving strategic environment. Reportedly, these brigades will play a role in ensuring security for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014. Mountain warfare capabilities are also relevant in support of possible operations in the South Caucasus, or Central Asia, (Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan) – such formations could support airborne units or spearhead an intervention in mountainous territory. Since the regime change and subsequent ethnic-linked violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, Moscow has consistently sought to strengthen the legal and military basis for possible intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). ¬In a rare public interview, the head of the General Staff’s Center for Military-Strategic Research (Tsentr Voyenno-Strategicheskikh Issledovaniy –TsVSI), Sergey Chekinov, said in May 2011 that the CSTO is the main structure that could stabilize the region and accused a number of Western states of seeking to destabilize Central Asia. “Central Asia is a region with growing geopolitical rivalry between the leading regional and global power centers. At the same time, conditions remain here for possible destabilization of the situation. This is caused both by internal factors of the development of local states and also attempts by some states and organizations to adjust the development of the situation in the region in the direction they need,” Chekinov stated (Interfax, May 3, 2011, December 15, 2010; Zvezda TV, March 17, 2009).

However, an underlying factor in Moscow’s military cooperation with Berne relates to the Russian General Staff’s efforts to transcend reform convulsions and actually improve elements of Russia’s armed forces. Despite claims made by the top brass about improved combat readiness as a result of the mass experimentation over the past three years, reality is slowly setting in. On July 9, Makarov led a “roundtable” at the headquarters of the Western MD in St. Petersburg. Commanders of districts and fleets discussed ways to improve military discipline, widely recognizing that it had declined. One presentation admitted that dedovshchina [literally, “Grandfatherism” – hazing of new conscripts by older recruits] is rife throughout the entire armed forces, while increased cases of personnel going AWOL, suicides and drug abuse were regarded as evidence of a deeper malaise. Makarov tried to put this down to “poorly organized military training” (after three years of reform) and clearly offered no solutions. Major-General Sergei Solomatin, commander of the 35th Army (Belogorsk) indicated that platoon commanders are inadequately trained and that lieutenants are scared to enter the barracks. Solomatin complained that increasingly his units are receiving people who do not wish to serve (Na Strazhe Rodiny, July 9).

Perpetual vacillation on the future of military manpower may encourage Moscow to look to Berne for long-term assistance on training NCOs, and seek fresh reform experiments. Solving these enduring issues will prove difficult, while cooperation with Switzerland may only indicate tacit recognition of much tougher tasks ahead. Yet, faced with such serious reform seizures, many may question the value of tapping the patellar reflex.