Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 158

The Commonwealth of Independent States’ annual air defense exercise, Combat Commonwealth-2001, has been underway at the Ashuluk training range in Russia’s Astrakhan Region since August 22, culminating today with the firing of ten live missile launches. Russian, Belarusan, Armenian and Tajik air defense units participate in this year’s exercise. The other two members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CIS/CST) chose to save money: Kazakhstan by exercising separately at its own Sary-Shagan range, and Kyrgyzstan by not exercising at all. The Kyrgyz, in any case, have no air defense force to speak of; they managed to hit only an aerostat last year at Ashuluk.

This year’s scenario includes two Putin-era novelties. First, it bears an openly anti-Western character. Second, it purports to involve CIS/CST member countries in a war on Russia’s side, apparently assuming those countries’ consent. Under this scenario, a “Westland” alliance of the United States and European NATO countries initiate hostilities against a “Northland” consisting of Russia and its five presumed allies. The Russian scenario, furthermore, singles out Poland for the vicious role of claiming territory from Belarus and demanding the “revision of the 1945 Potsdam agreements,” a phrase implying Polish designs on today’s Kaliningrad Region. Simultaneously under this scenario, Washington accuses Russia of violating international treaties on missile technology control, nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear safety. On this basis, the United States seeks an international mandate for inspecting and taking control of Russia’s nuclear installations both military and civilian. This, under the Russian scenario, leads to war.

In the first phase of the hostilities, “Westland”–operating from the Baltic states and Poland–gains control of the air space over parts of “Northland.” In the second phase, Westlanders conduct air strikes on selected “Northland” ground targets. For good measure, a “Southland” bloc–consisting of the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Pakistan and “the irreconcilable Tajik opposition”–opens a front against Central Asian countries by carrying out air strikes and unleashing “guerrilla gangs,” the main goal being to “disrupt state control.” In the South Caucasus, where no hostilities are supposed to break out, Armenian forces nevertheless form with Russia’s a “joint group of forces.”

The scenario’s published version remains intriguingly elliptic about the third phase of the hostilies, which is when “Northland” air defenses rally to regain control over the airspace, stop the enemy’s air strikes and force “Westland” to give up the planned offensive of its ground forces. The overarching goal of the exercise is defined as thwarting a “Yugoslavia-” or “Irak-type” operation against Russia. It presupposes, furthermore, that air defense would decide the outcome of the conflict and bring it to an end.

The whole set of assumptions behind this exercise contradicts Russia’s stated doctrine that NATO–indeed the West as such–is not an enemy and does not contemplate a military aggression. Some of the assumptions seem to share and reward the paranoid view of Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka regarding Poland, or to reinforce Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov’s allied loyalty. Elsewhere in Central Asia, the scenario’s credibility may be rated as close to nil. The line about Pakistani airstrikes, even if it pleases Rahmonov, almost certainly irritates Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstzan. Conversely, the line about the Tajik armed opposition must have embarrassed Rahmonov, who claims that he has successfully disarmed or suppressed that opposition. Its specter, however, may have been entered into the scenario by Moscow in order to entice Uzbek President Islam Karimov into joining the exercise and rejoining the CIS/CST itself. Karimov refused, however.

For all those outlandish assumptions, the exercise does reflect Moscow’s actual military planning concepts for the CIS/CST in at least three ways. First, it treats the member countries as a protective glacis of Russia. Second, it presumes that those countries’ leaders would join Russia in a defensive general war. And, third, it envisages the formation of “joint groups of forces”–Russia-Belarus, Russia-Armenia and Russia-Tajikistan, possibly adding Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstzan–with each joint group under the regional Russian command, and all three theaters under central Russian command.

In its practical aspects, the exercise at Ashuluk falls distinctly short of the grand planning assumptions. Among Russia’s allies, the Belarusans alone enjoy the privilege of using the modern S-300 surface-to-air missiles and Su-27 planes. The Armenians and the Tajiks are using only obsolete S-125 missiles. They own that type of missiles at home, but prefer to save on transportation costs by renting Russian-owned missiles and Russian air targets at Ashuluk. For these two countries, the Combat Commonwealth exercise is the sole chance during the entire year to fire air defense missiles with live ammunition.

The Russians, for their part, are using a variety of modern missiles and interceptor planes in this exercise. General Anatoly Kornukov is in overall command of the exercise in his dual capacity as commander in chief of Russia’s Air Force–which includes the air defense force–and chairman of the Air Defense Committee attached to the CIS Council of Defense Ministers. All “allied” launches including those of the Belarusans are supervised by Russsian officers.

The Ashuluk range is located close to the Russia-Kazakhstan border. On August 22, a Belarusan S-300 missile went off trajectory and landed in Kazakhstan’s Atyrau Region, causing no casualties, but leaving a big crater in the ground. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry protested in a note to Russia’s counterpart ministry. The note also demanded, apparently in vain, that the use of live ammunition at Ashuluk be temporarily halted, pending an investigation into the incident. The Belarusans, for their part, did not hesitate to blame the Russians. Lieutenant-General Valery Kastenka, commander of the Belarusan air defense forces, declared that the missile was Russian and was faulty–“nothing unusual at a testing range”–and the launch had been supervised by Russsian officers, and that the Belarusan unit was blameless (Itar-Tass, August 24, 27; Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 28; Interfax, August 28-29; Habar, August 24; Kazakh Commercial Television, August 27).