17 September 2019

“Center-2019”- a Russian military exercise on the Silk Road?

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

On 12th of September 2019, in a briefing organized for the accredited defence attachés in Moscow, the alternate of the defence minister, general-colonel Alexander Fomin, has presented the scenario of the “Tsentr-2019” exercise (“Center- 2019”). The exercise is part of a series of operative-strategic exercises (or command and general staff exercises, as the Russians called it, following the Western model), the most important military activities, annually organized by the Russian Defence Ministry.

Image source: Mediafax

“Center-2019” will be held between 9th and 23th of September 2019, in eight training ranges, around the Center Military Region (MR) responsibility area, but also outside Russia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan). The scenario opposes a fictitious state to a coalition of states conducted by Moscow, emerged in South-West of the Russian Federation, whose leadership encourages the Islamic radicalism and the international terrorism ideology.  In an initial phase, the aggressor state is sponsoring terrorist organizations, used as destabilization tools against the states in the region. Then, this state, which has a numerous army, modernly endowed, starts conventional military actions, targeting Russia and its allies in the Central Asia. Consequently, the combat measures of the coalition led by Russia has two phases. The first one focuses on counterterrorist actions, meanwhile the second international coalition starts a classic military counter-strike, focusing on fire missions, using many long range of action armament systems, of all forces categories (land, air and maritime).

Strategic-operative exercises organized by the Russian army

The Russian-Georgian conflict, that took place in summer of 2018, has revealed a series of dramatic vulnerabilities in the Russian military organization. Concurrently with a complex structural reform and unseen funds allocations, the Kremlin leadership has asked for Russian General Stuff of the Army’s capacity to plan and conduct military actions to be annually tested, starting with 2018, through high complexity exercises (including reservists’ mobilization and, partially, the defence industry as well), developed, in rotation, on each of the Russian Federation strategic directions. This is how the series of four strategic exercises have emerged, organized alternatively in the responsibility areas of four military regions.

On a strategic-operative level, the Russian Federation has established, following geographical criteria, military regions that it often reorganized (not less than six times, from 1998 hitherto), depending on the operative necessities. Each military region, which has administrative tasks, has a Joint Strategic Command-JSC (the NATO code)/ Obyedinennoye Strategicheskoye Komandovaniye-OSK, which is responsible with the operative elements, from troops’ training to fight forces’ conduction. Starting with 2014, Russia is organized following four military regions (West, South, Center and East) and an operative-strategic command, the North Fleet (about to get the military region status as well, by the end of this year). As for the latter, the process went backwards, as it initially was founded an independent command, by dividing some administrative divisions, with forces and its methods, from the West Military Region, and then it was considered the idea of establishing the fifth military region.

The series has started with the “Kavkav-2008” exercise, organized by the North Caucasus MR, the current South MR. According to the Defence Minister, the exercise involved 8.000 soldiers, however, according to NATO military analysts, the real number was actually 40.000. Then, there were the “Zapad-2009” exercises (West), “Vostok-2010” (East) and the “Tsentr-2011” exercise (Center), and afterwards they returned to “Kavkaz-2012”. The number of the participants was increasing year by year, their highest number being reached at the “Vostok-2018” exercise, whereat have participated, according to Russian officials, around 300.000 Russian and foreign soldiers.

These numbers, however, should not be taken for granted. The NATO analyses are, most of the times, opposed to Moscow’s official data. Hence, in terms of the latest exercise (“Vostok-2018”), the NATO estimations would be around 100.000 soldiers. This happens just because the Russian exaggerate a lot, considering not only the forces that were really part of exercise’s active phase, but also the personnel that was there during different phases of the exercises, phases that can last even three months. This applies both to “Vostok” and “Tsentr” exercises, developed in Russia’s Asiatic side, given that Moscow wants to also send a strong message, specific to an informational war. On the other hand, when exercises are developed in West of Ural Mountains (“Kavkaz” and “Zapad”), in Russia’s European side, the phenomenon had the opposed effect. Moscow provides smaller numbers, apparently in order to follow an OSCE treaty, also known as the “Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures”. With this treaty, the signatory sides are forces to notify OSCE whenever forces’ number who are part of military activities (exercises and other types of activities) on European territories is higher than 13.000 militaries and a pre-established number of fight, land, air and maritime systems. Therefore, the Russians are officially providing numbers to stay below the established limit, so that to have no obligation to notify the activities. Hence, at the “Kavkaz-2016” and “Zapad-2017” exercises, Moscow has announced the participation of 12.200-12.700 soldiers, meanwhile the NATO analyses have indicated around 70.000-120.000 soldiers. Why is it so important to know these numbers? Because Georgia’s invasion, from August 2008, was preceded by the first edition of “Kavkaz-2008”, when the Russian have announced the participation of 8.000 soldiers, when in fact they have mobilized more than 40.000, who were afterwards used to fight the Georgian forces. And the actions in East Ukraine have followed a similar scenario.

Although it is conducted under the responsibility of a certain military region, many times, there were other forces, from different regions, who joined these exercises too. Following this tactic, the Russians test what the military terminology calls "strategic mobility" - the ability to rapidly displace, in any direction, high-value forces and methods (in theory, the equivalent of a joint weapons army).

The Russian Ministry of Defence is responsible with exercises’ management, and the operational control is conducted by the Russian General Staff, through the National Center for Defence Management. At the operative level, command and control are ensured by the operative-strategic command in the military region the exercise is organized in.

Another noteworthy thing is that the annual operational-strategic exercises described above are planned in advance. This should not make us ignore that, starting with 2013, President Vladimir Putin asked for the implementation of "snap exercises" (according to the NATO language) that can quickly mobilize and dislocate, where necessary, even more than 150,000 soldiers, with the proper fighting technique. These snap exercises are already usual in the Russian army, being held for like 5-6 times a year. For NATO planners, these are potential indicators, precursors of a conventional military operation and are, therefore, monitored accordingly.

The nature of the operative-strategic exercise “Center”

Usually, the “Center” exercises are targeting Central Asia and also Russia and its CSTO allies’ capacity to counter the threats in the region. The scenarios are adapting according to the geopolitical context. Therefore, the “Center-2011” was focused on the answer to a possible “Arab Spring” type of challenge, focusing (at least according to statements) on the security situation that could emerge after the NATO withdrawal (announced at that time) from Afghanistan. The participation was quite modest, considering what we are all witnessing today: only 12.000 soldiers, from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan.

By contrast, at the “Center-2015” exercise, have participated more than 100.000 soldiers and exercise’s scenario has targeted the Russian intervention when supporting an allied state from Central Asia, a member of CSTO.  After this exercise, it followed a snap exercise, which tested the strategic mobility, mobilizing and transporting, to a more than 1000 km distance, forces and methods from other military regions, including units belonging to the Russian Fleet of the Baltic Sea. The international participation, including CSTO member states, was rather symbolic and made the experts to say that the exercise was, in fact, a preparatory phase for a Russian intervention in Syria.

What’s new in this year’s exercise?

Comparing to previous exercises, the scenario is definitely different and suggests Russian planners’ capacity to create a large category of geopolitical scenarios and hypothesis. The aggressor enemy the Russians are imagining, an Arab, fundamentalist state, with a modern force capacity able to threaten Russia militarily can hardly be identified, therefore, one can only speculate about it. However, we can definitely say that Moscow is afraid of the Islamic terrorism (the repeated terrorist attacks from Moscow have increased this concern) and acts diplomatically and militarily to combat the threat at home (see the intervention in Syria and the support given to Khalifa Haftar, in Libya).

The participation has also increased compared to previous years. According to its organizers, 128,000 soldiers, 20,000 military technical units, 600 aircrafts and 15 ships are part of this year's exercise (it should be mentioned that the ships belong to the Caspian Sea Flotilla, subordinated to the South MR).

But the most surprising element is the participation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) states, China (first), India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Previously, China was invited and usually participated in the "Vostok" exercise. This seemed normal then, given that it was being held in the Far East, at China and Mongolia’s Northern borders, and the invitation Kremlin sent to Beijing could be a sign of courtesy and military diplomacy, an attempt to its neighbor that the military actions do not target him in any way. China's involvement in a Central Asian scenario is quite different and could make everyone think of a long-term military alliance (even a circumstantial one, as there are still many divergences between Russia and China on different topics). However, a scenario wherein traditional rivals such as China, India and Pakistan join Russia was difficult to imagine. Therefore, Russia's initiative to invite the SCO states should rather be seen as a message specific to the informational war, that Kremlin is so good at: Moscow is not alone against the US and NATO, being able to generate a coalition of states that will be a viable counterweight to the transatlantic block.

The exercise is afoot. What should we pay attention to?

“Center-2019” is afoot, about to end on 23th of September. As there are some action sequences that the officials or independent observers are offering through „social media„ (the Russian Twitter is now a goldmine for the military analysts who know Russian), there are some things were should pay attention to.

Firstly, if there will be any joint actions with the international participatory forces, or isolated actions, in separated polygons. The joint actions can be a first step towards an interoperability of the Russian forces with other forces of the SCO member states.

Secondly, we must analyze the objectives the Kremlin political-military leaders are following at this exercise (the informational message to be sent; what new strategies will be used; techniques, tactics and innovative procedures, new armament systems that could be tested).

As the information will slowly be brought to light, the Monitor will come with a new relevant article, when the exercise will be done.

Translated by Andreea Soare