Partners or Adversaries?

Geopolitical Aspects of the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE



Victor Hvozd
Doctor of Military Sciences



In my previous article “From the Baltic to the Black Sea. The New Format of the “Caucasus” SCPE and Threats to the Region” I made a military-strategic estimate of the strategic command and post exercise (SCPE) of the Russian Armed Forces “Caucasus-2020” (“Kavkaz 2020”). But the geopolitical aspects of the exercise, which are no less important, were not considered. In particular, this concerns the involvement of Russia’s allies and partners in the SCPE, which was aimed at demonstrating support for its position in the world, including within the framework of various international organizations, which were established at Moscow’s initiative in opposition to the West.

For example, at Russia’s invitation, military units of Armenia, Belarus, China, Myanmar and Pakistan took part in the SCPE — a total of about one thousand servicemen. Besides, the exercise was attended by observers from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka.

Most of these countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan and Pakistan) or maintain close cooperation with them (Iran is an observer in the SCO and Sri Lanka is a partner in dialogue of the Organization).

According to Russian Defense Minister S. Shoigu, the deepening of military cooperation between the members of these organizations, which has moved to the practical level within the framework of the “Caucasus-2020”, has a decisive impact on the geopolitical situation throughout the Eurasian space, a manifestation of which is the possibility of resolving regional security problems without non-Eurasian countries.

According to Russian politicians, this approach paves the way for a new Eurasian alliance similar to NATO. This issue is of particular importance for Russia in the context of the actual resumption of the Cold War between it and the West, which is accompanied by an escalation of confrontation between the parties in the military sphere. At this, unlike the former USSR, the current Russian Federation is not able to achieve a balance of forces with the United States and NATO on its own. Moreover, the deteriorating state of Russia’s economy under Western sanctions and falling world energy prices are forcing it to reduce military spending. Thus, in 2021, spending on the needs of “national defense” of the Russian Federation is going to be reduced by 441 billion rubles to 1.453 trillion rubles. (by 23 %), which is the lowest figure since 2011 compared to expected GDP.

This is forcing Russia to reduce the scale of military exercises, as well as to abandon a number of programs for the technical re-equipment of its Armed Forces. For example, the total number of servicemen who were involved in the SCPE “East-2018” was declared at the level of 300 thousand people, “Center-2019” — 150 thousand people, and “Caucasus-2020” — only 80 thousand people.

Creation of a new Eurasian alliance similar to NATO is of particular importance for Russia in the context of the actual resumption of the Cold War between it and the West

At the same time, due to the lack of funds, Russia has actually stopped producing new tanks and focused on upgrading old T-72s, which have been in storage since Soviet times. For the same reason, the Russian defense industry is unable to provide the Armed Forces with a sufficient number of cruise missiles “Kalibr”, operational and tactical systems “Iskander-M”, and new types of strategic missile systems.

According to Russian military experts, all this is extremely negative for Russia, which is in a difficult geopolitical situation and, in fact, “surrounded by a ring of enemies”. The Kremlin believes that the most problematic is the Black Sea region, which is the main source of threats to the Russian Federation. First of all, among them are “openly unfriendly to Russia Ukraine”, the same “unfriendly Georgia”, “Turkey, which is working to revive the Ottoman Empire”, as well as the spread of Islamism among the Muslim population of the North Caucasus.


Under such circumstances, Russia’s deepening military cooperation with other countries allows it not only to strengthen its international position, but also to use their military capabilities for its own purpose. However, all this is quite ambiguous. For one, Russia’s allies and partners have their own geopolitical goals, which in some cases do not coincide with Moscow’s interests. Besides, there are various contradictions within the CSTO and SCO, which put Russia in a difficult situation, when its support of one of the partners provokes a negative reaction from the other.

A manifestation of this problem was the refusal of India (as a member of the SCO) to participate in the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE. According to the Indian official statement, the reason for this decision was the COVID-19 epidemic. But, according to many estimates, it was in fact related to the border conflict between India and China this summer.

Russia’s allies and partners have their own geopolitical goals, which in some cases do not coincide with Moscow’s interests

Serbia, which is Russia’s only partner in the Balkans but is also moving westward, also refused to participate in the exercise. Evidence of such changes was the meeting of Presidents of the USA D. Trump and of Serbia A. Vucic on September 4 this year, which provoked a negative reaction from Moscow. It was then that Serbia declared a moratorium on all military exercises for six months.

In fact, Russia cannot count on real support from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, let alone Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. All of them just count on certain preferences from Russia, primarily in purchasing Russian weapons. But none of these countries will ever side with Russia in case of an armed conflict between it and the United States and NATO.

Unlike them, Russia’s real allies are Belarus and Armenia. The Regional Group of Troops of Russia and Belarus, directed against NATO in the Baltic region, has been operating since 1999. And in 2016, the Joint Forces of Russia and Armenia were formed, directed against the North Atlantic Alliance (primarily Turkey) in the Caucasus region. But neither Belarus nor Armenia can change the strategic balance of forces in Moscow’s favor.

Partner counties just count on certain preferences from Russia. But none of them will ever side with Russia in case of an armed conflict between it and the United States and NATO

For example, the Armed Forces of Belarus include only four mechanized brigades and three brigades of the Special Forces, which in its potential roughly corresponds to one combined arms army of Russia. As they are scattered throughout Belarus, the total contribution of the Belarusian army to Russia’s defense capabilities does not play a fundamental role.

Armenia, being completely tied to the war with Azerbaijan, which has been going on for about 30 years and is taking over all Armenian resources, will not be able to strengthen Russia either. After the period of relative peace, the armed confrontation between the two countries intensified in July and September 2020. Moreover, in September it happened immediately after the end of the active phase of the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE.

In fact, only Iran provides real assistance to Russia in its confrontation with the United States, but only at the tactical level in the Middle East through covert support of anti-American forces in Iraq and Syria.


Given these circumstances, Russia’s only strategic partner remains China, which is also at odds with the United States as a new center of power that threatens American dominance in the world and has strong potential in the economic and military spheres. This is what Moscow is relying on, despite the negative consequences of such a course for it. On the one hand, deepening cooperation with China does allow Moscow to strengthen its position in the confrontation with the United States and NATO, but on the other hand, it contributes to China’s expansion in the East of Russia, which poses a real threat to it, which beats that from the West.

China’s expansion in the East of Russia poses a real threat to it, which beats that from the West

Evidence of this is the situation around the joint military exercises of Russia and China, which were launched in 2005 and have become systematic since 2018.

Since 2005, a joint Russian-Chinese exercise “Peace Mission” has been held, which today has the status of a military cooperation event within the SCO. The areas of exercises include Northeast China, Russia’s Far East, Kazakhstan and the Southern Urals. 3 to 10 thousand servicemen take part in the exercises.

In 2012, the annual naval exercise of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China “Naval Interaction” was launched. The exercise is held in the Northwest Pacific, and from 2018 — also in the Baltic Sea.

In 2018, China was invited for the first time to participate in the SCPE of the Russian Armed Forces “East-2018”. A combined mechanized brigade and a helicopter detachment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China with a total number of 3,500 servicemen were involved in the activities of the main part of the SCPE in the Trans-Baikal Territory.

In 2019, at Moscow’s invitation, a combined mechanized brigade and a helicopter detachment of the PLA with a total number of 1.5 thousand people took part in the main part of the RF Armed Forces’ “Center-2019” SCPE in Orenburg region. And this year, a Chinese military unit numbering about 600 servicemen was involved in the main part of the Russian Armed Forces’ “Caucasus-2020” SCPE in Astrakhan region of Russia.

Besides, since 2019, joint patrols of long-range/strategic aviation in the Pacific have become a new form of cooperation between Russia and China.


Participation in joint military exercises with Russia is officially declared by the Chinese leadership as one of the important aspects of the strategic partnership between the two countries. At the same time, this significantly increases Beijing’s ability to provide military support for China’s economic and demographic expansion in eastern Russia.

Providing such support is becoming increasingly important for China, due to the growing anti-Chinese sentiment among the local population in the above-mentioned regions of Russia. The reasons for this are the uncontrolled growth of the number of ethnic Chinese in the Russian Far East, accompanied by driving Russian citizens from there, and the use of “predatory” methods of natural resource development by Chinese enterprises.

Today, such trends are already leading to interethnic clashes in the region, which could escalate into larger conflicts. Despite Russia’s and China’s being mutually interested in strengthening the strategic partnership, this may result in aggravation of relations between them up to military confrontation. Given these prospects, China is objectively interested in studying possible theaters of war on Russian territory, developing transport communications in the region, as well as clarifying information on the state of Russia’s Armed Forces and the strategy and tactics of their combat use. In fact, resolving these issues is the main goal of China’s military cooperation with Russia.

Participation in joint military exercises with Russia significantly increases Beijing’s ability to provide military support for China’s economic and demographic expansion in eastern Russia

Thus, the main activities of the above-mentioned exercises are held in areas of special interest to China and where the largest Chinese diasporas are located, namely: in the Far East — in Vladivostok, in Eastern Siberia — in the Trans-Baikal Territory and in the Southern Urals. The transfer of Chinese troops to the training areas allows China to practically study Russian railways in all of these areas. Additionally, as part of joint actions with ground and airborne troops, tactical and strategic aviation, as well as ships of the Russian Navy, China has received data on the combat capabilities of the Russian Army and Navy.

According to a number of experts, based on the experience gained, China is moving to practical actions to create bases for the possible deployment of its troops in the East of Russia in case of such a need. To this end, under the guise of creating of agricultural enterprises, military bases left by the Russian armed forces are being bought and restored and maintained in working order. The surrounding lands are being leased and inhabited by people from China.

In particular, as part of this approach, in June 2020, Chinese business structures through their Russian partners bought the military camp of one of the disbanded regiments of the 33rd Missile Army of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces. The camp is located in the Ilanskiy district of the Krasnoyarsk Territory near the Trans-Siberian Railway between Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk.

According to analysts, the presence of such facilities will allow China to quickly deploy its troops, as well as provide them with mobilization and logistical resources (including transport and engineering equipment, fuel, food, etc.).


In general, these processes are another confirmation of the effectiveness of the US and EU political and economic sanctions against Russia, which create critical problems for it. Thus, as a result of Western sanctions, Russia is increasingly losing the capability of confronting the West, in the military sphere included, and is forced to search for allies and partners. At the same time, currently the only effective partner of Moscow is China, which has the appropriate motivation and potential. At this, China’s true goals do not include supporting Russia at all, it aims at using the situation in the interests of expansion on the Russian direction.


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