Rehearsals for war

With Russia building up its military capacity at staggering speed, it might be time to develop new rules of engagement, to avoid the worst-case scenario.

In both domestic and foreign policy, efficient and combat-ready armed forces are among the Kremlin’s most important tools, if not its most important. To Moscow, the annexation of Crimea, the “hybrid war” in the Donbas (where Russian soldiers went on “holiday” to a war zone), and the rapid deployment of its air force in Syria were actions that restored the country’s position on the international stage and shored up domestic support for President Vladimir Putin. In all of these operations, the Russian armed forces performed better than they had in previous conflicts, particularly in the area of rapid deployment. For example, Russia managed to deploy 40,000 troops to the Russian-Ukrainian border within a few days of Putin’s order. By comparison, in 1999, when Chechen rebels went into Dagestan, it took about three weeks for Moscow to start deployment.

This improved efficiency is the fruit of radical military reforms carried out in 2008-2012 under former Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. At the heart of these reforms was a decisive rejection of the concept of mass mobilisation that had defined Moscow’s defence policy over the last 150 years. The old policy assumed that the only way to repel a general offensive was by mobilising a few million men. Therefore, about 80 percent of all Russia’s army units were skeleton units, which needed months to become combat-ready. Along with the problems inherent in this delay, the changing demographic situation gave no guarantee of success even of a partial mobilisation. Serdyukov’s decision to abolish these units meant that the units remaining would be fully manned. This has left the Kremlin with several units able to execute orders within a few hours of receiving them.

Another development that has improved the effectiveness of recent Russian military operations has been the increased speed of decision-making. The nature of the current regime in Russia means that there is no need to wait for parliamentary approval or agreement with allies to conduct a military operation. On both the domestic and international fronts, Putin need only consult with one person: Putin. It took the Council of the Federation just over an hour on 1 March 2014 to approve the deployment of troops in Ukraine and just a few minutes to approve the sending of planes to Syria on 30 September the following year. Likewise, Moscow did not bother to inform its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of its intention to launch cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea on 7 October 2015.

Faster decision-making and faster troop deployment have enabled the Russian military to make use of a powerful military tactic: the element of surprise. Together, these qualities have ensured the effectiveness of Russian troops on the ground. In recent years, the armed forces’ increasingly frequent military exercises have focused on improving these qualities. In 2015 they conducted around 5,000 exercises[1], and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that over 2,000 exercises were scheduled to take place in the summer of 2016 alone [2].

Obscuring future strategy

It is thought in the West that the sheer number of exercises will provide enough information to determine future Russian strategy. But it will not: Russia’s Ministry of Defence can manipulate the data. When military exercises take place in European Russia, the ministry has every interest in downplaying them, because they should be conducted in accordance with the Vienna Document. This document requires that military exercises be announced in advance if they are to include more than 9,000 soldiers, and if they include more than 13,000, then foreign observers must be invited. However, because exercises are in some cases preparations for military operations and can serve as cover in the initial stage of such operations, advance announcements and the presence of foreign observers would get in the way. To avoid meeting these requirements, the ministry has increasingly resorted to snap inspections, which do not need to be announced in advance.

One such was in February 2014, when Putin ordered a snap inspection of the Western and Central military districts, the airborne troops, the air defence troops, military transport, and long-range aviation[3]. Defence Minister Shoigu said that this inspection covered 150,000 soldiers, and Deputy Minister Anatoly Antonov squirmed while trying to explain how this was consistent with the Vienna Document. He said that Russia “was involving no more than 38,000 personnel for just 72 hours […]. You should not mix up the numbers of 150,000 which I gave you and 38,000. I’m talking about the 38,000 which fall under the requirements of the Vienna Document. These include ground troops, airborne troops, marines.” [4]

What Antonov meant was that the majority of those 150,000 troops were supposed to be beyond the Ural Mountains, outside of Europe. In the European part of Russia, the exercise was only supposed to involve 38,000 soldiers for three days, from 28 February to 3 March. Only after this was Moscow obliged to invite foreign observers, and Moscow got out of this quite easily. It declared the inspection over and just happened to leave troops near the Ukrainian border under the pretext that each unit was undergoing separate exercises, supposedly involving each of them advancing into over 500km of territory to unfamiliar training grounds. But since these were not joint exercises, the number of participants in each individual exercise did not exceed the limits set out in the Vienna Document. Consequently, Russia was not obliged to invite observers. And in fact, many foreign researchers think that attempts to understate the number of participants began even before the crisis in Ukraine (as in the exercise “West – 2013”, a joint military drill with Belarus).[5]

In other cases, when it was not obliged to invite foreign observers, the Ministry of Defence clearly overstated the number of participants, so as to demonstrate the power of the Russian army. During a snap inspection of the Eastern Military District, the ministry reported that there would be around 1,000 tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APC), and infantry vehicles, 130 aircraft, and 70 ships[6] for 160,000 soldiers. Subsequently, it must have realised that 160,000 soldiers (almost a quarter of the armed forces) would need more equipment – otherwise, 160 soldiers would have had to share one tank or APC. So, the ministry increased the numbers to 13,000 pieces of military equipment, including 5,000 tanks and armoured vehicles[7]. Open sources show that there are 600 tanks and a similar number of infantry vehicles and APCs in the Eastern Military District – so just over 1,000 units. If Russian statements are taken seriously, no fewer than 4,000 tanks, infantry vehicles, APCs, and self-propelled howitzers were transferred from Central Russia to Eastern Russia in the space of two to three days – an impossible feat. And the minister himself said that just 700 railway carriages were used to transport this military equipment to the east[8].

The total number of participants announced is also questionable. It is likely that senior military officials included all units of the Eastern Military District, plus those drawn from the Central Military District. I suspect that most never went anywhere at all and played no part in these exercises.

Rehearsing future operations

Without accurate quantitative data for such exercises, their nature and purpose remain unclear. But what is more important is the information given about the location and scenarios of each exercise. Many of the exercises are clearly rehearsals for real military operations that followed. In April 2013, for example, there was a snap inspection of the Southern Military District, Airborne Forces, and the Black Sea and Baltic fleets. The president ordered the 45th Airborne Regiment, units of the 106th (Tula) Airborne Division, and the 22nd Brigade of the Spetsnaz to advance to the Black Sea coast. Military transport aircraft transferred them to the area of potential conflict. At the same time, the Black Sea Fleet was ordered to deploy; its landing ships with marines on board were sent out to sea. The amphibious ships of the Baltic Fleet, which had stayed on in Novorossiysk after January exercises in the Mediterranean, also went out to sea. Meanwhile, military units stationed in the region began to move to the concentration area. And the press noted the presence of units from the 7th Airborne Assault division as well as the division management team. This scenario was precisely repeated one year later in February and March 2014 with the annexation of Crimea[9].

The same units that were transferred to the western regions of Russia and Belarus during the “West-2013” exercise moved towards the Ukrainian border during the snap inspections in February 2014. By analysing social media photos and videos as well as reports in the Ukrainian press at the time, Vedomosti newspaper concluded that the following units moved to regions neighbouring Ukraine during military exercises: the 4th Guards Tank (Kantemirovskaya) and the 2nd Guards Motorised Rifle division (Taman) from Moscow, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, the 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade, the 106th Guards Airborne Assault Division, and the 23rd Motorised Rifle Brigade[10]. After the capture of Russian troops in Ukraine in late August 2014, we can add the 98th Airborne Division to this list.

At the time, Defence Minister Shoigu denied that the snap inspection had anything to do with Ukraine: “These two things are not linked in any way […]. These exercises will also take place on Russia’s borders with other countries, which may include Ukraine.” [11]Now, however, it is clear that this snap inspection was preparation for the Crimea and Donbas operations against Ukraine. It provided the opportunity to mobilise units, send them to forward areas (and in some cases even to the point of deployment), and check their combat-readiness. The concentration of Russian forces on the south-eastern border with Ukraine was initially intended to draw Ukrainian forces there, but not allow them to be transferred to Crimea. Subsequently, these forces began to support Russia’s secret operation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, and then supported the separatists through direct military intervention. All of the units and formations used here are the strike force that the Kremlin intends to use in future battles.

Russian strategists do not hide the fact that military operations are rehearsed during exercises. The Chief of the Main Directorate of Combat Training of the Armed Forces, Lieutenant-General Ivan Buvaltsev, said as much in an interview with Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er (the Military-Industrial Courier). He said that while planning the strategic “Centre-2015” exercises (which took place in the summer of 2015), the military leadership had the Middle East theatre in mind. “The guidelines for the exercise ‘Centre-2015’ included operating in places which lack reference points, have no roads, sand, a flat steppe terrain. We picked areas which could get the troops used to conditions similar to those of the Middle East. The landscape was like those regions where terrorist groups operate, as were the tactics of the ‘opposition’.” [12]This scenario assumed an invasion of a foreign country that had been “taken over by terrorists”. While Russia has not yet launched a large-scale ground operation in Syria, a snap inspection in May 2015 in the Central District in which aviation and air defence forces were deployed over four days could hint at one, as this is exactly what happened in Syria in October.

These examples make it clear that exercises are good indicators of the military theatres the Kremlin is considering. It will come as no surprise, then, if in this year’s strategic exercises, “Caucasus-2016”, the main focus is not on action against terrorist groups (to be expected given the region) but against NATO’s southern flank, primarily Romania with its missile defence base.

The exercises indicate not only where the Kremlin is going to fight but also how it will fight. Much attention is paid to the interaction between the various branches of the armed forces, which has always been Russia’s Achilles heel (as shown during the five-day war with Georgia in 2008). Moscow’s military reforms led to the creation of a united strategic command that includes units of the armed forces in every region. Exercises carried out by each command should ensure interaction between different branches of the armed forces. Moreover, a mandatory element of the exercise is to interact with the local authorities who are trained to conduct a limited mobilisation.

Another important element of these exercises is to practise coordination with troops from the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Until recently, this seemed to be part of the mandatory “anti-terrorism” label used to justify the exercises, since the Kremlin needed to demonstrate that it was not preparing for war with anybody except terrorist groups. This has given rise to instances where some “terrorists” turned out to have rocket launchers and other terrorists had to be attacked from the air with artillery strikes. Now, Moscow sees “colour revolutions” as a new form of warfare, equating anti-government protests with actions of the special forces of a potential enemy. So the number of participants has been significantly increased among the troops of the Ministry of the Interior, which became a part of the newly established National Guard (whose 400,000 troops outnumber ground troops).

The nature of the threat

It would be wrong to conclude that Russia’s military exercises in the European part of the country mean that there is a direct military threat to the Baltic countries and Poland. Experts who predict possible Russian attacks on Europe should bear in mind that Russia simply does not have the manpower for such an offensive. The “defensive” nature of Russia’s exercises in Europe stems from the fact that Moscow does not currently have the strength for strategic offensive attacks. It is striking that to “counter” NATO the Kremlin announced the creation of three new divisions and a tank army headquarters. At the same time, Moscow was forced to weaken its ability to respond to a possible crisis in Central Asia: the 201st military base formerly in Tajikistan was reduced from divisional to brigade level, and the 28th and 23rd motorised rifle brigades were relocated to the Ukrainian border from the Urals and Samara respectively.

But even moving these units is not enough for a possible offensive. Because of its demographic situation, Russia cannot significantly increase the number of its armed forces. This year, this number is expected to grow by only 10,000 soldiers[13], clearly insufficient to form the promised three divisions. Consequently, all divisions may end up being understaffed. The existence of such “paper” divisions, which in times of crisis would need to be manned with reservists, will weaken rather than strengthen Russia's fighting power.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that Russia is already in a state of cold war with NATO. In this situation, any incident may lead to a serious crisis. With more and bigger military exercises, this probability only increases. Now is not the time for Europe to limit itself to containing Russia militarily; rather, it should turn to the previous positive experience of the Cold War – peaceful coexistence. Europe should think about new military confidence-building measures and establishing new “hot lines” of communication.

It might also make sense to re-examine Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal to conclude a comprehensive pan-European security treaty. In 2008, this was rejected by NATO, which was understandable. The main idea would have been the “indivisibility of security” in Europe, which would have given Russia de facto veto rights over any NATO decision. But times have changed. Today, the degree of mutual incomprehension and mistrust is such that there is a real need for a new space for negotiation where both formal and informal contact can be made. These negotiations could help to clarify the “indivisibility of security” in terms of specific levels of weapons and the deployment of troops. They could also develop new measures to prevent dangerous military activity, primarily in maritime areas.

Those who propose relying on military deterrence argue that Moscow has a tendency not to implement treaties. However, negotiations on such important treaties as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and the Treaty on Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) were held in an atmosphere of even greater mistrust and suspicion. In the end, it is the experts’ job to devise measures of mutual control to ensure treaty compliance.

However unpleasant it may be, we have to realise that confrontation between Russia and the West has reached such a level that it is time to develop new rules of military engagement so as to avoid the worst-case scenario.


Aleksandr Golts is a Russian military analyst currently based at Uppsala, Sweden. 


[1] New training year starts in Russia’s Armed Forces, (В Вооруженных Силах РФ начинается новый учебный год), Interfax, 1 December 2015, available at:

[2] The harvest of the training ground, (Полигонная страда), Aleksandr Tikhonov, Krasnaya Zvezda, 1 June 2016, available at:

[3] Spot check of combat-readiness of Western and Central Military Districts, 26 February 2014 (Внезапная проверка боеготовности войск Западного и Центрального военных округов 26 февраля 2014 г), Russian Ministry of Defence, available at:

[4] Shoigu: Russian Armed Forces’ spot check not connected with events in Ukraine (Шойгу: внезапная проверка Вооруженных сил РФ не связана с событиями на Украине), TASS, 26 February 2014, available at:

[5] Russia’s Zapad 2013 Military Exercise Lessons for Baltic Regional Security, The Jamestown Foundation, December 2015, pp 51-52.

[6] On 13 July there started the biggest combat-readiness spot check since Soviet times (13 июля началась самая масштабная проверка боеготовности войск со времен СССР), Voenniy Obozrevatel’, 13 July 2013, available at:

[7] Monthly journal of Russian Ministry of Defence (Ежемесячный журнал информационно/аналитическое издание Министерства обороны РФ), N.112, August 2013, available at:

[8] Start of spot check of Eastern Military District forces (Начало внезапной проверки войск Восточного военного округа), Voennoe Obozreniye, 16 July 2013, available at:

[9] The conditional surprise factor, (Условная внезапность), Aleksandr Golts, Ogonek, N.14 2013, available at:

[10] Ukraine is not fighting, (Украина не боец), Aleksei Nikolskiy, Vedomosti, 12 March 2014, available at:

[11] The transfer of troops involved in combat-readiness spot checks has started, (Началась переброска войск, задействованных во “внезапной проверке боеготовности”),, 27 February 2014, available at:

[12] The Middle East in the Southern Urals (Ближний Восток на Южном Урале), Ivan Buvaltsev, Oleg Falichev,  Military-Industrial Courier, N.42, 4 November 2015, available at:

[13] Meeting notes, Russian Ministry of Defence, 11 December 2015, available at:

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.