Vostok 2010 and the Very Curious Hypothetical Opponent

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 133

Russian Military during Vostok 2010 Exercise

Recently, Roger McDermott, a regular contributor to this publication, offered an excellent overview of the operational-strategic exercise being conducted in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East by the Russian armed forces (EDM, July 6). McDermott correctly pointed to the role of the exercise in testing concepts associated with the “new look” reforms and called attention to the exercise’s testing the speed of deployment of brigades, their combat readiness, and capacity to engage in combined-arms combat in an air/land battle, and their logistical support to sustain combat actions. He also noted that while the scenario dealt with a wide range of combat actions, including anti-piracy to counter-terrorism, the senior military leadership, including the Chief of the General Staff (CGS), Army-General Nikolai Makarov, stated that the opponent was hypothetical and was not aimed against “any one country or bloc.” McDermott, however, concluded that the actual objective of the exercise was a test of the defenses of Siberia and the Far East from attack by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). McDermott raised the very threat that dare not speak its name. To understand this silence, one needs to examine the political-military context of this exercise.

Anyone involved in the construction of a scenario for a war game or exercise knows that the creation of the documents for conducting such operational-strategic exercise involves formulating a road to war, which brings about conflict between the contending sides, usually labeled “red” and “blue” in the case of Russian war games (with “blue” being the color associated with the aggressor forces against which Russian “red” forces defend). In the case of Vostok 2010, Russian forces involved in the exercise faced a “hypothetical opponent” [uslovnyi protivnik]. At a press conference at the start of the exercise, General Makarov stated that this exercise was not directed against any country or military bloc: “First, I would note, that this particular exercise, like last year’s, is not directed against any concrete nation or military-political bloc. It has a strictly defense orientation to maintain the security and defense of the state’s national interests along its Far Eastern borders from a hypothetical enemy” (Interfax, June 28). Hypothetical opponents are not new and are not the product of post-modern political correctness. Those familiar with the exercises of the US Army after World War II will remember “FM 30-102, Handbook on Aggressor Military Forces,” which was published in 1947 and stated: “The country, peoples and forces described herein are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to existing countries or forces is inadvertent and coincidental.” That notional opponent, “Circle Trigon” with its Esperanto-speaking opposing forces continued to be used in US Army exercises into the 1970’s. Such an official orientation did not prevent US forces from exercising against a notional opponent that looked something like the Red Army, and by the 1980’s the opposing force at the National Training Center had evolved into a very good replication of a Soviet motorized rifle regiment. Thus, hypothetical opponents can over time evolve into probable opponents.

Even a hypothetical opponent has to have some military capabilities in order to execute acts of aggression, which bring about the reposes of the “red” defenders in the Russian case. An operational-strategic exercise consists of many distinct tactical vignettes which are used to test the training of the forces involved in the exercise. Vostok 2010 not only involved air, ground and naval forces of the Russian defense ministry, but also interior ministry troops, Federal Security Service (FSB), Border Guards, Ministry of Extraordinary Situations, Federal Protective Service (FSO), and Federal Service for Execution of Punishments (FSIN) (www.rbc.ru, June 29). Its scale was quite large in terms of troops, equipment, and number of training areas in Siberia and the Far East that were involved. When asked about the opponent that drove these vignettes, General Makarov replied:

“We did not look at any particular country and did not look at any particular enemy. We are talking about what direction we will create our own operational-strategic situation in the course of which somewhere a group of terrorists or large group of separatists are active, which is quite characteristic for low-intensity conflicts. For instance we selected such scenarios. But by quantity –here a brigade, there a battalion, here small groups of warships. I will say once again, we did not attempt to assemble huge forces and means in any district. We want to look at the capacity for executing tasks with small subunits. We have to understand how our troops must act, and most important, what armaments they will need” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 2).

According to Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, it was designed particularly to test the deployment of forces and the operational command and control of the new brigade-based force structure. Vostok 2010 did not pit two opposing armies in linear combat. Instead, it involved isolated combat and non-combat episodes testing various forces. Fighter aviation conducted long range deployments from European Russia to the Far East employing mid-air refueling from tanker aircraft. Air defense forces launched surface to air missile (SAM) strikes against “enemy bombers seeking to attack Khabarovsk.” Special Forces cooperated with camp guards to prevent the release of a special prisoner from a labor camp near Chita. Combined naval forces, including ships from the Pacific, Northern, and Black Sea Fleets, engaged enemy surface and subsurface forces at sea, and conducted air assault and amphibious landings. Other troops beat back an enemy landing on one of the Kuril Islands. Motorized rifle and tank brigades in the Siberian Military District engaged separatists seeking to cut off the Russian Far East and defeated the enemy by combined-arms maneuver through the depths of the enemy, culminating in crossing the Onon River and imposing retreat upon the enemy and the assumption of a tactical defense. In Primorsky Kray, Russian forces simulated the flight of refugees from North Korea. Meanwhile President, Dmitry Medvedev, used his visit to the Far East in conjunction with the exercise to praise the evident progress made in the “new look” and to underscore the government’s commitment to make Russia an integrated part of the Asian Pacific. Observing the naval exercise, Medvedev took time to decorate sailors from the Marshal Shaposhnikov, who had taken part in recapturing the tanker, Moscow University, and the liberation of its crew.

Russian commentators concluded that despite all the extensive press coverage of the exercise, the government failed to articulate one clear message. The military, including the defense minister and CGS, were set upon emphasizing the progress made in creating the “new look” armed forces to disarm critics alleging that Serdyukov’s reforms had broken the military (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 9). On the other hand, President Medvedev promoted, as its primary message, Russia’s economic drive for regional integration as a vital national objective. Medvedev emphasized the Asia-Pacific region’s continued economic growth even during the current global economic crisis and spoke of Russia’s integration with the entire Asia-Pacific region and not just China, and even listed the integration of BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) bloc as a national objective (Respublika Armeniya, July 7). Aleksandr Sadchikov described Medvedev’s policy as “the fourth campaign to the East,” recalling three earlier campaigns: Russian rivalry with Britain and France in the Far East in the mid-nineteenth century, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, “socialist expansion under the Soviet Union,” which culminated in the territorial gains achieved as a result of the August 1945 war against Japan. Sadchikov referred to the political forecast made by Viacheslav Nikonov, about the advantages to Russia in leaning to the east to escape pressure from the American superpower. In 2002, Nikonov had written of China already transforming itself economically, and strategically focusing on the unification of Taiwan with the country as its primary strategic objective. Nikonov projected a relatively slow transformation of the Chinese military over the next twenty-five years, making embracing the east in the form of China relatively low risk in terms of security. Sadchikov characterizes the fourth campaign to the east as an adaptation of Beijing’s strategy to Russian circumstances: “In its time, China formulated its own strategy: lean on the north, stabilize the west and expand to the south and east. According to Viacheslav Nikonov, Moscow’s present strategy must be lean on the west, stabilize the south and go east” (Izvestiya, July 9). With the military addressing a separatist threat that finds armed assistance from abroad and the political leadership committed to going East, one must still ask what were the underlying threats driving the General Staff’s accumulation of vignettes.

Looking at the various episodes that formed the scenario for Vostok 2010, one could conclude that going east has its own peculiar risks for Russia. The refugee scenario for North Korea highlights the instability of that regime and the likelihood of conflict developing out of its disintegration or from its desperate acts to sustain its position. Fear that a US-Chinese conflict in the wake of the collapse of North Korea would impose difficult strategic choices upon Moscow has been a regular theme in press commentary on Korea. The sharp exchange between Moscow and Tokyo over the exercise on the disputed Kuril Islands, highlights the troubled state of Russo-Japanese relations and brings into strategic calculations the US-Japanese Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (www.newsru, July 7). Just as President Medvedev visited the nuclear cruiser, Petr Velikii (Peter the Great), to observe a mock naval battle and amphibious landing, naval officers there informed the media that the tactical problem of the exercise was the destruction of “an American squadron,” and that the probable enemy was unchanged. Commenting on the meteorological conditions at the time of this naval exercise, which involved heavy mist and low visibility, the author described Vostok 2010 as “covered in fog,” a categorization which would fit the confused military and political signals being sent (Novye Izvestiya, July 5). Finally, the air and ground exercises near Chita and Khabarovsk make no sense except as responses to some force threatening the territorial integrity of Eastern Siberia and the Far East. The only forces with the military potential to carry out air and ground attacks that deep into Russian territory are the PLA in support of so-called separatists identified in the scenario.

The one branch of the Russian military not involved in direct combat operations during Vostok 2010 was the Strategic Rocket Forces, which carried out no operational launches. Their only role was the defense of their bases from attacks by terrorists. This seems to suggest that conventional forces could handle such a challenge to the territorial integrity of the Russian state, even in so vulnerable a region as the Far East. Yet, the scenario leaves open the intervention of a hypothetical opponent in support of the separatists after their defeat on the River Onon. Short of a diplomatic revolution to end Russia’s international isolation in the Far East, we can expect the continuation of a Janus-like policy of looking towards economic integration with the Asia-Pacific region, while exercising against an unnamed hypothetical opponent. For its part, the defense ministry and General Staff announced their satisfaction with Vostok 2010 and their intention to focus next year’s main operational-strategic exercise on force mobilization and deployment in the central region of Russia in Tsentr 2011 (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 8).