15 September 2020

The „Kavkaz 2020” drill – Russia is testing its diplomatic-military capabilities

Sorin Butiri

Between 21th and 26th of September, the “Kavkaz 202” operative-strategic drill will take place (or, how the Russians called it, following the Western model, the command and staff drill). As usual, this military drill is the most important event organized by the Russian Defence Ministry. What will the drill’s scenarios look like? Are we going to witness Russia’s new show of force, just like we did, back in 2014, in Crimea? How possible are such developments?

Image source: Hepta

A short hindsight

After the Russian-Georgian 2018 conflict, the Kremlin’s political leadership ordered the annual verification of General Staff’s capacity to plan and lead military actions. Consequently, the strategic drills have emerged, where there are planned and led complex military actions, including the partial mobilization of the defence industry and reservists. The strategic command and staff drills are part of the drills planned ahead of time. Their leadership is provided by the Russian Defence Ministry, and the operational control is conducted by the Russian General Staff, through the National Defence Management Centre. The command and control are provided by the joint operative-strategic command in the military region the drill is taking place.

These drills are developed in rotation, in each responsibility area of the West, East, Centre and South military regions. Each region, with mostly administrative responsibilities, has a join operative-strategic command, which is responsible with operative aspects, from troops’ training to the actual management of the fight forces. Despite the four military regions, Russia also has a strategic operative command of the Northern Fleet, but it did not got, yet, the military region status.

The series of these types of drills started with “Kavkaz 2008” (in the South), and the last three were ”Zapad-2017” (West), ”Vostok-2018” (East), ”Ţentr-2019” (Centre).

The numbers of the participating military is different, depending on the OSCE treaty’s provisions, also known as the Wien Document. At the “East” and “Centre” drills, the Russians want to exaggerate the number of participating soldiers, including, besides the participating forces, the military that join different phases of drill’s training. As for the “Caucasus” and “West” drills, the officials and the Russian media want to minimize the number of participating military, as they are forced to notify their activity following the OSCE treaty. The best examples to that end are the “East 2018”, when the Russians said there were 300.000 military from Russia and the participating countries taking part to the drill, and NATO has estimated the participation of only 100.000. For the “Caucasus 2016” and the “West 2017”, Moscow announced the participation of 12.200-12.700 soldiers, in fact the NATO analyses showing there were around 70.00-120.000 soldiers at the drill.

These numbers are important if we look at Georgia’s invasion, in August 2008, preceded by “Caucasus 2008”, when the Russian announced the participation of 8.000 military, but they actually mobilized more than 40.000.

This year’s planning

The planning for “Caucasus 2020” started in the first trimester of this year. Therefore, in March, a commission led by the deputy minister of defence from Russia, Yunus-ek Yevkurov, has examined the areas where the tactical phases were planned and checked the condition of the fields and polygons where the drills will be held.

 At president’s order, who is also the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, on July 17th, the verification of units and big units in Southern, Western and Central Military Regions has started, also of the air troops and marina infantry within the Northern Fleet and Pacific’s Fleet.

According to the Defence Minister, the army general Sergey Shoigu, the activity was previously planned to check the units in South-West of the Russian Federation. The verification drill ended on July 22nd, and according to Russian officials, there were 149.000 soldiers, 26.800 equipment and military technique units, 414 aircrafts and 106 warships that were part of the drill. Thus, at the end of July, the units and larger units in the Southern Military Region have executed tactical drills at the automated infantry battalion, tanks and artillery. According to the Southern Military Region’s officials, there were 10.000 participating military at this exercise. During the drills, there were executed tactical exercises, with and without fires, in the polygons around the regions Astrakhan, Volgograd and Rostov, in Stavropol, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Adygea, Chechnya and Crimea, as well as in the Russian military bases from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Then, between August 24th and September 4th, within the three armies of the Southern Military Region’s joint arms, as well as the Russian Fleet in the Black Seam have started the concurrent development of command and staff drills, both to a brigade and division level. The drills developed in polygons in Astrakhan, Volgograd, Rostov and Crimea regions. During the drills, the commanders and general staffs of the units and larger units planned and executed fight actions of the subordinated forces, organized the support and cooperation to a tactical and operative level, to combat the enemy’s attack.

States invited at the “Caucasus 2020”

More than a mere show of force, such drills serve to convey the Kremlin's indispensable role in Eurasian security policy. Russia has invited China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Belarus, Turkey, Armenia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and India to join it. This list includes several pairs of states with antagonistic relations - most importantly, Armenia and Azerbaijan are currently engaged in a hot territorial conflict. This proves Moscow's desire to project its image as an authoritarian geopolitical broker in Eurasia.

But this image has been "blurred" by India's recent decision to withdraw from the drill, as clashes between Indian and Chinese troops continue along the border dispute between the Himalayas and the two sides. The Indian Ministry of Defense mentioned, diplomatically, that the main reason for the withdrawal is related to the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Although the decision by the New Delhi authorities is unlikely to affect long-term Russian-Indian relations, India's withdrawal from participating in the "Caucasus 2020" exercise undermines the Kremlin's image as a key element of Eurasian security that the all other regional actors should listen to. This hypothesis is also reinforced by the meeting (September 4th) between the Indian Minister of Defense and his Chinese counterpart in Moscow to discuss tensions along the line of control.

Likely scenario of the drills

It is very likely that the scenario of the "Caucasus 2020" exercise to be similar to that of 2016, whereat will be added elements from the "Center 2019" drill to ask the invited states to “play” as well.

The purpose of the exercise will include a clear political message to neighboring countries (especially Ukraine) and NATO members - showing the ability to defend and maintain control over Crimea and repel a large-scale air and naval attack on the peninsula, while taking action together with the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and other invited states. Internally, military drill of this scale send the Russian public the message that its armed forces have the ability to defend Crimea and are one of the pillars of the state as a "great world power."

The most likely scenario for the drill will be the following:

The "Western" state, together with its allies within the "Blue/Western Coalition", is attacking the "Northern Federation", through a large-scale air-naval and land operation where it uses missiles and radio-electronic warfare. Simultaneously with this action, specific to a conventional conflict, in the eastern part of South Moldova, a terrorist organization of Islamist origin destabilizes the security situation, trying to set up a "caliphate".

As a result of this scenario, the defenders carry out mainly defensive actions to stop the attack of the "Blue Coalition", create the conditions for switching to counter-offensive, and then carry out offensive operations to defeat the enemy.

The scenario involves the use of a very wide range of procedures and methods of action, such as:

● fast mobile defense (with troops from mobile divisions);

● Coast defense as well as

● isolation and elimination of groups of intelligence or special forces of the enemy.

Also, the command-control systems of the units and large units from the South Republic of Moldova, their cooperation with units from other military regions, as well as with the local authorities will be tested. At the same time, some new technique categories will be tested and new combat use methods of those already used will be sought.

Russia is likely to notify the exercise following the Vienna Treaty, declaring 13,000 military participants. However, given the previous experience, the number of participating soldiers may exceed the reported figures.

Anticipating the drill’s development, we might notice…

... many important elements. These could include:

1. Testing and improving the command and control structure (C2) and the communications. Previous similar exercises involved the establishment of a radio-electronic protection network connecting parts of the Volga, Siberia, Ural and North Caucasus regions. The recent emphasis on network-based military operations allows us to say that, even in the "Caucasus 2020", this concept will be used to test its reliability and security of information if the "Blue Coalition" would use aggressive measures specific to electronic warfare;

2. Testing of the Anti-Access/Area Denial system (A2/AD) in the Crimean Peninsula;

3. Intensive use, on the one hand, of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and protection, on the other hand, against UAVs. A closer look at Russia's military exercises over the past three years indicates a steady trend towards repelling "enemy’s" UAV attacks, as well as using them to gather information and attack targets;

4. Strategic mobility testing. Strategic mobility plays a crucial role in Russian thinking on how to conduct combat on NATO's eastern flank. Many senior Russian officers believe that if the conflict with NATO breaks out on Russia's western border, reaction speed, troop mobility and support are vital to blocking the influx of "enemy" forces for further engagement and support and can influence the outcome of the operation. The maneuverability of the aero-mobile units that are now mechanized will be tested, by equipping them with tanks;

5. Verification of logistical support. Improvements to the logistics system will be verified in real conditions. These improvements include: accelerating the delivery of spare parts, improving the interaction with the defense industry and streamlining the process of repair and maintenance of damaged military equipment, while evacuating the destroyed equipment.

Last but not least, we may witness Russia’s excessive and aggressive use of the notification of closing some districts in international waters pretending the firing artillery or missile fire.

Will we see also some “black swan” type of scenarios?

All similar drills nearby Romania's and NATO's borders create a state of alert on an international scale, especially if we consider the Georgia 2008 and Crimea 2014 moments.

The "Caucasus 2020" exercise, in times marked by other international event - such as the US elections and insufficient water resources in the Crimea - could be the premises for a new Russian military intervention in Ukraine. This scenario is, however, unlikely given that:

- it would create new political, diplomatic, economic and social problems for Russia by annexing new territories;

- The humanitarian crisis that Russia is talking about is only partially true. The problem of water supply to the Crimean population is generally solved by Moscow, but the problem of irrigation water stays;

- the opening of the Tavrida motorway in Crimea facilitates the supply of food to the Crimean population , thus supplementing the production of food that needs irrigation;

- Currently, Russia does not need to "cover" the "Caucasus 2020" exercise in order to carry out a military action to conquer the irrigation canal from the Dnieper. Russia already has pre-positioned troops to such action.

What will happen during the “Caucasus 2020” exercise, if it has consequences that go over the presented scenario, will all be revealed in less than two weeks. The “Defence and Security Monitor” will keep you updated with the military developments nearby.

Translated by Andreea Soare