13 October 2020

The picture of a military drill – Kavkaz 2020

Sorin Butiri

Russia has recently completed the military drill “Kavkaz 2020”. The command and staff drill, developed annually in one of the four military regions, was held between 21st and 26th of September, in the responsibility area of the Southern Military District (MD). The Southern Military District includes the South Caucasus, Crimea and parts of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Although it was not held that far, east of Romania’s eastern border, the media coverage in our country on this topic was quite minimal. The key words of this year’s exercise were: attack power and mobility.

Image source: Profimedia


The general political and military context

Politically speaking, the military drills might indicate the long term ambitions of a country – at least, those ambitions that can be reached through the use of military force. This is all the more true for Russia, which gives the armed forces a strong social-political role and has proved its capacity and flexibility to use them for coercive diplomacy.

For the operational level, the military drills can offer clues on the confirmation of review of some doctrinaire provisions to use the armed forces.

As the Russian deputy minister of defence stated, general-colonel Alexandr Fomin, the military drill’s objective was to assess the ability of the Russian armed forces to successfully repel an attack by a mock state adversary, and conduct offensive operations in the Southwestern strategic direction, stress test the system (military and key civilian ministries) in handling a conflict that escalates from local war to regional war, and improve the capacity for multinational operations

According to the Russian deputy minister of defence states, general-colonel Alexandr Fomin, in the first phase of the exercise, the staff personnel planned the necessary operations to limit the actions developed by the imaginary enemy (“a terrorist organization backed by a mock enemy state”).  According to the Russian official, the personnel focused on planning the counter attacks of all confrontation environments (land, maritime and airspace), reconnaissance, search and the creation of favorable conditions to reestablish the control of the area in Russia’s territory, which are hypothetically disputed.

In the second phase, there were tested the command capacities of the operative and tactical officers, the training of soldiers and the functioning of technique and equipment they use. The tactical drills with firearm training were held in several polygons, and they checked the command and control system, the readiness of the decision-making processes, the executive effectiveness, the inter-arms coordination, inter-category with the allies. There were developed mainly offensive actions in this phase.

As for Russia, the drill included the large units in the Southern Military District, some Western RM units,  Airborne VDV, LRA (long range aviation), VTA (transport aviation). The Center RM units might have also participated at the drill. Also, during the drill, there were also included the military within the minister of emergency situations and the National Guard.

According to official data, there were 80.000 people participating at the drill, only 12.900 of them being soldiers. These numbers confirm Kremlin’s previous statements, according to which the number of military who were participating at the drill, at any time, will not go over the maximum limit of 13.000 military, which are controlled by the same command, and does not mean they have to report the drill or to have the observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe present.

The list of participating countries did not come as a surprise: China, Pakistan, Belarus, Myanmar and Armenia participated with around 1000 military. Azerbaijan refused the invitation, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan only sent some observers. Kyrgyzstan was not involved at all. This is interesting, as all these countries are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, led by Moscow – which can vaguely be seen as the Euro-Asian/ Russian version of NATO.

At the same time, the number of participants does not raise as much interest as India’s visible absence. New Delhi is frequently developing military drills with Russia and other Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members, and it should have been present at the “Kavkaz 2020” exercise with 200 military. However, at the end of August, India officially announced that it is no longer participating at the drill. The official excuse offered by Delhi was the logistic imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the true reason behind it was India’s complaint on Pakistan and China’s participation at the event. As for Russia’s position, India’s absence should not make us think that the Russian-Indian bilateral relations are getting colder, but, in fact, the SCO relations are being weakened – which was already marked by the “traditional” dispute between India and Pakistan. This complicated context will offer Moscow the possibility to test its international mediation abilities again.

Therefore, politically speaking, the participation to the exercise did not meet the level Russia expected, nor within CSTO or SCO.

The drill’s doctrinaire support

The Russian military officials think the Southern Military District is facing three possible threats:

-the presence of strong separatist groups, ethnically and religiously motivated (Islamist);

-the geographic closeness to Middle East, which exposes the Southern borders of Russia to those regions’ instability;

-NATO and EU’s advance in its “privileged interest’s area”, through Georgia and Ukraine. From this point of view, just like in the past editions of the strategic command and staff drill, the scenario reflects these concerns - starting from the antiterrorist operations’ development in a local context, the military actions extended regionally through the more or less direct intervention of some foreign actors.

The drills developed by Russia this year are confirming the “appetite” to huge, quick operations developed with armored and mechanized infantry units, supported by airborne and aviation troops, as well as the large-scale use of artillery and missiles (offensive’s key element) and the missile defense systems. This “classical” approach was accompanied by an absolute novelty, which is the use of the so-called “drone swarm”. After a careful analysis of the use method, technically it was not a swarm but, in fact, a group of independent drones which developed concurrent compatible missions, actually supporting the artillery. At the same time, these so-called swarms developed intelligence collection operations to very small/and big altitudes and also land attacks. This development shows a significant improvement for Russia’s capacity to use drones, a capacity developed after the participation to military actions in Syria and Ukraine.

These estimations are also confirmed by the drill held on September 25th, in the Kapustin Yar polygon, in the Astrakhan region, in the presence of president Vladimir Putin.

In the first phase of the demonstrative exercise, the Russian armed forces developed defensive military actions stopping the enemy’s advance by using tanks mechanized infantry subunits, strongly supported by the aviation, artillery and missiles. The defensive forces were covered by special units. Then, they started the counteroffensive with two big units supported by aviation and artillery and missiles units. The “piece de resistance” of the drill were: the Russian flamethrower system TOS-2 and the airdrop of a brigade on the combat vehicle of the BMD-4M amphibious infantry.

The brigade’s airdrop was made with 57 II-76 transport aircrafts which airdropped the troops, the equipment and their technique in two different sectors. The distance between the aircrafts during the airdrop was 30 seconds (around 2 km). The reduction of the time between the aircrafts part of the same flight group, as well as between the flight groups can significantly reduce the airdrop time and regroup of the special units.

During the exercise, for the first time ever, an airdrop campaign was airdropped concurrently with the parachuting of the BMD-4M fight vehicles. The airdrop of the 900 parachutists and 118 equipment and technique units was done at a 600-900 meters height.


The “Kavkaz 2020” follows the “normal” line of the command and staff drills developed by Russia from 2008 to present.

The Moscow’s military-operational preferences were reconfirmed, proving their “willingness” for inter-arms and inter-category military actions, as well as the involvement of other ministers to support the military planners. The large scale use of the mechanized infantry and armored vehicles, the artillery and missiles, aviation and airborne troops is still one of the main coordinates of these drills. From this point of view, we can state that Russia is still focused on inter-state conflicts on a regional scale with a mostly conventional element and a high intensity. Long story short: conventional, mobility and attack power.

This year's edition of the exercise also presented a novelty (how could it have been missing?) - the use of unmanned aircraft systems, which confirms the trend of constant and considerable improvement of the Russian armed forces, both operationally, as well as from a technological point of view.

Particularly, the strengthening of Russia's military potential in Crimea and the Black Sea, by creating an anti-access and interdiction zone (A2 / AD), while increasing the number of systematic military activities (planned, but not notified or unannounced) in Romania's proximity creates challenges for national security. From this perspective, the institutions in the national defense and security field must consider the endowment, equipment and training of subordinate forces for the conduct of conventional combat actions, not only for unconventional or non-military actions.

For now, Russia is still riding on the classical actions!

Translated by Andreea Soare