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Is Putin Gearing Up for Intervening in Asia Next?

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 01, 2014

    Few may have paid attention to the recently held (June 21-28) massive military “snap inspection” drill by Russia in its Central Military District (CMD) that involved 65,000 troops including Russian troops stationed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. More than 180 aircraft and 60 helicopters took part in the war game. According to media reports, President Vladimir Putin had ordered the drill to keep the armed forces on constant alert.1 In fact, when this author was on a visit to Central Asia in June, the “snap inspection” had begun at the Russian Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan and the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan. Media had quoted Yaroslav Roshchupkin, District Assistant Commander of CMD that a comprehensive inspection was taking place simultaneously in all military units of CMD’s 29 regions.

    According to Eurasia Daily Monitor quoting Russian news agency Interfax (June 20–29) and Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozrenuya (June 29), the exercise involved forces from all the four Military Districts, which included “the 57th, 59th and Motorized Rifle Brigades and the 8th Surface-to-Air (SAM) Brigade of the Eastern Military District’s 5th Combined Arms Army (CAA). The 27th Motorized Rifle Brigade in addition to the elements of the Northern Fleet and the 790th Fighter Aviation Regiment (providing MiG-31, MiG-31BM, and Su-27) represented the Western Military District. The Airborne Forces (VDV) 7th Air Assault Division (Novorossiysk) represented the Southern Military District. However, the Central Military District deployed the bulk of the forces. These included the 2nd Air Forces and Air Defense Forces Command (562nd Base) Tolmachevo (Mi-8 and Mi-24); VDV 31st Air Assault Brigade (Ulyanovsk), 3rd Spetsnaz Brigade, the 28th, 23rd (Medium) and 21st (Heavy) Motorized Rifle Brigades, the 15th Motorized Rifle Peacekeeping Brigade, 385th Artillery Brigade and the 297th SAM Brigade.”2

    Coming on the heels of Russia’s faceoff with Ukraine, the snap drill surprised many. Western analysts including the NATO officials viewed this as a gambit to wield additional pressure on Ukraine and further escalation of the crisis. The Russian Defence Ministry website gives no details but Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that the drill evaluated the operational readiness for any possible intervention in Central Asia in the near future. The June snap inspection was supposedly the largest operational-strategic exercise since Zapad 2013. The Central Military District acted the role of strategic reserve for other three military theaters in addition to forces deployed in Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. At the end of the inspection, Russia’s Defense Ministry officials announced that it had achieved the goal of creating a self-sustaining strategic operational force and strategic mobility capabilities.3 Strategic mobility over the swath of territory has been a big issue for the Russian army. Traditionally, Russians military depended heavily on railway transportation, but the exercise this time believed to have paid extra attention to using airlift to enhance mobility. Russian An-124-100 Ruslan heavy-lift transporters airlifted Mi-24 helicopters from Tolmachevo Airbase (Novosibirsk Region) to Koltsovo airfield (Sverdlovsk Region). Russian media mentioned that the drill tested out the mobility range covering a strategic depth of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) within three days period.

    Quite clearly, the “snap inspection” was Russia’s own drill separate of annually conducted maneuver by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) under the rubric Rubezh ("Frontier") exercise. This meant that Russia was building its own capability either to act along with the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Forces or to intervene unilaterally in the Central Asian Theater if required. However, the force structure comprising all forms of Motorized Rifle Brigades was different from the formation Russia used for annexing Crimea early this year. Clearly, the June snap inspection was a preparation for meeting the threats emanating from the southern frontiers or perhaps a rehearsal for supporting a crisis in Central Asia. As the CMD representative said, the main target was to neutralize international terrorists.4

    Soon after another command-and-staff drill codenamed “Rubezh (Frontier) 2014” followed the “snap inspection” drill in Chelyabinsk region on July 15-18 under the aegis of CSTO with the participation of armed forces of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, as well as joint staff and secretariat of the CSTO.5 Rubezh is an annual drill mainly to display the joint operational capabilities of CSTO’s Collective Rapid Reaction Forces under a single command. It is also a platform for interactions and exchanging experiences. The drill also aimed at neutralizing extremist threats emanating from the south – the primary source of concern for the Central Asian states for two decades.

    A series of CSTO war games scheduled for this year also include Vostok 2014 in the Far East in September. Not only this covers the challenges emanating from the Chinese Flank but also to counter the threats posed to Russian interests by the US in the Asia-Pacific. Interestingly, all these military maneuvers are being planned against the backdrop of the US and NATO troops pulling from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moscow probably feels pressed to do something to defend the Central Asia flank where Russian interests are mostly concentrated. Although the scope of these maneuvers are wider to tackle conflicts erupting in any direction of Russia’s near-aboard, but considerations seem more to do with the Afghan-scenario. To be sure, the larger context of the shift of focus on Central Asia could be for the following reasons:

    1. To deal with the eventual Afghan fall outs after the impending withdrawal of International Security Assistance Force this year;
    2. To prepare for any eventualities especially the possibility of the West propping up Ukraine-type regime change in Central Asia that would threaten the existing regimes and the Russian interest in Asia;
    3. To consolidate support for ethnic Russians living near-abroad especially in Central Asia;
      To assess the possibility of sectarian and extremist forces spreading into the Caucasus and Central Asian regions;
    4. To signal the Chinese of their limits of influence in Eurasia hitherto increased unchecked.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India