The use of large-scale military exercises as a means of conditioning the Russian authoritarian regime
Assessing combat readiness: preparation for war or a means of exerting power?
Russia’s leadership carried out its latest, and so far, largest test of combat readiness of its armed forces in late August 2016 which subsequently developed into an equally extensive series of military exercises: “Caucasus 2016”. The last drill of this kind took place in February 2016. The objectives of these measures were very clearly defined: the armed forces of the Southern Military District should be on standby for the deployment of self-sufficient forces in order “to localize crises”. Moreover, the readiness of the Western and Central Military Districts to act “in the southwestern strategic direction” was assessed. This caused another upsurge in concern regarding a possible escalation of the war against Ukraine. However, the recurrence and form of these checks indicate that several motives underlie the moves undertaken by the Russian power elite concerning foreign and purely military as well as domestic policy.
Military exercises in the form of “unannounced inspections of combat readiness” inevitably raise the temperature in the foreign policy sphere. Here, Moscow remains true to itself: it keeps its opponents on their toes, creating the image of a dangerous and unpredictable player, and thereby forces them to engage in dialogue. Such behavior has been an inherent feature of Russian foreign policy since the onset of the war against Ukraine in February 2014 and is a consequence of Russia’s inability to play by the existing international rules.
However, the most recent military exercises also had a purely practical military dimension. Despite the fact that Russia formally announced that its armed forces personnel numbered 1 million, the number of those ready to participate in conventional, contemporary warfare as part of battalion tactical groups is actually far smaller. Moscow is seeking to increase the number of such personnel to between 100 and 150 thousand (currently, more than 50 thousand are on alert). By all appearances, this takes into account the US and NATO’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq during which comparable numbers were involved at the heights of the campaigns. The aim of this commitment is clear: Russia has set its sights on becoming the second strongest military power in the world, and not only with respect to strategic nuclear forces, but also conventional forces and equipment.
At the same time, Russia is actually waging two wars: in Syria and in Ukraine. And even though these campaigns are limited in nature, the Kremlin seems to have long moved to martial law mode, and is apparently preparing for protracted war. The main problem here lies in the fact that political objectives of the Ukrainian and Syrian campaigns have still not been achieved and acknowledgement of the defeat along with any attempts to peacefully resolve the problems created by Russian hands will lead to a high risk of a shift in power within Russia as such.
As a result, the practical aim of the most recent checks of combat readiness is most probably preparation for a fully-fledged ground operation in Syria. Russian Special Operation Forces are already stationed there along with Russian trained mercenary troops. It is also important to take into account the self-sufficiency of troop groupings, which means conducting operations some distance from main supply bases.
Nevertheless, one cannot rule out the possibility of direct conflict with NATO on the territory of the Baltic states or a possible new phase of the war with Ukraine. The probability of these two scenarios exceeds zero especially should the Kremlin have, at the very least, a formal excuse to assert that it is not an aggressor but that it is exercising its right to defend itself. This assertion is supported by Russia’s reaction to the deployment of additional NATO forces in the Baltic states as well as the strange incident involving so-called “Ukrainian subversives” in Crimea in August 2016.
Thus, an attempt to maintain the status of a great superpower against the backdrop of long-term socio-economic and technological decline along with the preparation for a very real, and not an abstract, war is one of Moscow’s targets when such checks of combat readiness are carried out. It is noteworthy that one is not talking of a reaction to real threats to Russia’s security, but rather implementation of foreign-policy goals by the ruling elite which is striving for political and economic survival in a changing world and trying to impose its way of living on the West.
Militarism as leverage
Such “unannounced combat readiness checks” have another important domestic-policy vector: The Russian formal political institutions have deteriorated over the last few years and the capture and retention of Crimea have made degradation inevitable, especially in the light of the election to the State Duma on the annexed peninsula. The authoritarian regime suffers from a governance deficit given such a situation and militarization of internal life is supposed to resolve this problem.
The involvement of the Central Bank of Russia, ministries, local authorities and military enterprises in these drills is meant to serve this purpose. The experiments in the formation of territorial defense from reservist units including the formation of an entire division in occupied Crimea are also noteworthy. Of course, if the Kremlin is getting ready for war in earnest, it wants to be sure that the war does not paralyze the inner life of Russia. However, the abovementioned measures correspond to the experience of World War II. It is not the type of war that Moscow needs 100-150 thousand trained and well-equipped soldiers ready to strike quickly outside the country for.
The very fact that state and local self-government as well as enterprises should be ready for war means that the Kremlin has an effective control mechanism at hand as well as leverage to impact and garner loyalty for its decisions from state and municipal officials as well as managers in the military-and-defense sector. When the fabric of the legal authorities is unraveling, militarization helps keep the system sharp. It should also be added that, given the circumstances, the emergence and development of elements of the military autocracy occur naturally even despite the will of individual stakeholders.
Due to extensive checks of combat readiness and drills such as “Caucasus 2016”, the militarist doctrine becomes governance practice. And if one takes into account that militarization does not only affect the government and the military-and-industrial complex but also penetrates the education system, then the most negative scenario related to militarization of the remaining spheres of Russian economy and Russian life shall surface in the nearest future. The Russian authoritarian regime is clearly striving to find sustainability in militarism and is consequently susceptible to such degeneration.
In other words, the spirit of the “besieged fortress” that has gripped the Kremlin and has been used to justify its foreign and military policies is rapidly spreading to encompass domestic, economic and social life and it’s not clear where this could end.
As a result, we can see the large-scale “snap combat readiness checks” which are widely covered in the media by the Russian power elite itself and are, in fact, in line with the logic of the country’s authoritarian regime. The motive of the preservation of this system dominates here whereas methods have shifted to the domain of war and subsequent self-isolation since, at least, 2014. And the most dangerous thing is that the Russian authorities have become accustomed to war as it is now part of their daily routine.
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