From the Baltic to the Black Sea

The New Format of the “Caucasus” SCPE and Threats to the Region

 

 

Victor Hvozd
Doctor of Military Sciences

 

Since V. Putin’s switching to the policy of confrontation with the West, which he proclaimed in 2007, the main events in Russia’s Armed Forces are the annual strategic command and post exercises (SCPE). As a rule, their main (active) phase of such exercises is held in September each year in one of the military districts of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

Officially, SCPE have anti-terrorist focus. In reality, the exercise scenarios envisage rehearsing various variants of armed conflicts (wars) between Russia and the United States and NATO. At this they fulfill the task of organizing offensive and defensive operations on relevant strategic directions.

In particular, the “West” exercises are conducted on the North-Western (Baltic) direction; “Caucasus” — on the South-Western (Black Sea) direction; “Center” — on the Central Asian direction; “East” — on the Siberian and Far Eastern directions.

All this is typical of this year’s “Caucasus-2020” (“Kavkaz-2020”) exercise, with the exception of certain features due to worsening of economic problems in Russia and revolutionary events in Belarus, which directly affect Russian interests. The consequence of this is the significant differences between the officially stated and actual goals and scales of the SCPE.

 

Thus, the critical situation in the Russian economy as a result of Western sanctions, falling prices for energy carriers and the COVID-19 epidemic is forcing Moscow to reduce military and other spending, as well as to seek some compromises with the United States and Europe. However, the Putin regime cannot make real concessions to the West, as this would mean a complete collapse of the policy and ideology on which its power is based.

At the same time, V. Putin cannot leave the Lukashenko regime in Belarus without help, as its fall under the pressure from the opposition and the West would set another precedent for the overthrow of dictatorial regime in the post-Soviet space. In turn, this would increase the threat of recurrence of similar events in Russia.

Given the above-mentioned circumstances, in May 2020, Russia appealed to the United States and NATO to reduce military activity in Europe. At this, as a “gesture of good will”, Russia expressed its intention to hold preparatory and main events of the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE in inner regions of the country.

Such plans were confirmed by the Russian military command on the eve of the beginning of the main phase of exercise on September 21–26. Thus, according to the statement of the Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Colonel General A. Fomin, at the briefing before the representatives of the military-diplomatic corps, the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE is not directed against any of the countries. It is just working out issues of combating international terrorists, which are supported from outside. In particular, they are practicing reconnaissance and defense actions, repulse of air strikes, destruction of illegal armed groups.

The Plan of the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE.
The RF Ministry of Defense’s Version

During the briefing, emphasis was placed on Russia’s fulfillment of its obligations regarding the conduct of major training activities at the rear training grounds in Volgograd and Astrakhan regions, as well as in the North Caucasus. Besides, they also use marine landfills in the Caspian and Black Seas.

According to the official statement of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the troops of the Southern Military District (MD), the command bodies of the Western MD, as well as forces and means of other branches and forces of the RF Armed Forces, including the Air and Space Forces (VKS), Airborne Troops (VDV), the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. The stated number of participants is up to 80 thousand people, up to 250 tanks, up to 450 armored combat vehicles and up to 200 artillery systems and MLRS.

In terms of the number of military equipment, this complies with the restrictions set by the agreements on conventional forces in Europe (in particular, the Vienna Document of 2011). As a “gesture of goodwill,” Russia has also invited international observers to monitor the exercises.

 

However, as in previous years, all this is just part of the military exercises that are being held in Russia against the single operational background with the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE. Moreover, on the North-Western direction of Russia, the activity of its Armed Forces is approaching the forms and levels that correspond to the “West” SCPE.

At this, both, the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE and other measures of operational and combat training of the RF Armed Forces are not anti-terrorist at all. They envisage rehearsing scenarios of armed conflicts (wars) between Russia and the United States and NATO, and on the South-Western direction, also issues related to the continuation of the armed aggression against Ukraine.

Evidence of this is the course of preparation for the “Caucasus-2020” and the nature of the accompanying measures of operational and combat training of the RF Armed Forces, as well as the scale of the main phase of the exercise conducted at the above-mentioned training grounds in the Southern MD.

Areas of Conducting the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE.
Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

For example, the main stages of the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE were a comprehensive final inspection of the Russian Armed Forces for the winter of 2019 in March this year, as well as a sudden inspection of the troops of the Southern MD and the command bodies of the Western MD in July 2020. As part of the inspections, was conducted a set of interrelated trainings on the above themes. In addition, separate trainings were conducted in the VKS, VDV, Russian Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN), in the all kinds of logistics units, as well as in the Northern, Pacific, Black Sea and Baltic Fleets.

During the mentioned events, which were held in July–August 2020, reinforced battalion tactical groups from the units of the 20th Combined Arms Army (HQ — Voronezh) of the Western MD and the 8th Combined Arms Army (HQ — Novocherkassk, Rostov Region) of the Sothern MD of the Russian Armed Forces were deployed to field areas near the eastern border of Ukraine. At the same time, tactical aircrafts and helicopters from the 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army (HQ — Rostov-on-Don), which is operatively subordinated to the Southern MD, were deployed at advanced and field airfields in Rostov region, Krasnodar and Stavropol Territories of Russia.

During the same period, elements of wartime command, communication and intelligence systems, as well as field depots and other logistics units, were deployed in those areas. Works on modernization and expansion of the capacity of railways and motorways on the Ukrainian direction were carried out. Similar measures were taken in the Russian-annexed Crimea.

All this is the main component of the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE. At this, it does not matter where the main part of it is taking place — at the rear or advanced training grounds. All troops involved in the exercise can be quickly redeployed to the borders of Ukraine and used to conduct aggression against it, and the scale of the main part of the SCPE confirms this possibility.

In particular, the “Caucasus-2020” includes bilateral tactical exercises of six brigade tactical groups, including: at the Prudboy training ground in Volgograd region — units from the 155th Motorized Rifle Division and the 20th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 8th Army; at the Ashuluk training ground in Astrakhan region — units from the 34th Separate Mountain Motorized Infantry Brigade and 205th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade of the 49th Army (HQ — Stavropol); at the Adanak training ground in Dagestan — units from the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division and the 136th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 58th Army (HQ — Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia).

In addition, the 7th Air Assault Division is being trained at the Raevsky training ground near Novorossiysk, and the combat aircraft are being practiced at the Arzgirsky and Kopansky training grounds in the Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories. And at the Kapustin Yar training ground in Astrakhan region, where the final phase of the exercise is planned, the tasks of using Iskander-M operational-tactical missile systems will be worked out.

And this is not to mention the fact that “behind the scenes” of the official announcements of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation there are plans to conduct bilateral tactical exercises of units of the 810th Separate Marine Brigade and 126th Coast Guard Brigade from the 22nd Army Corps of the Coastal Troops of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia.

And at the end of the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE, in October–November this year, they are going to hold separate strategic command and post exercise of the RF Strategic Missile Forces “Thunder-2020” (“Grom-2020”). By the way, I would like to remind you that during a sudden inspection of the troops of the Southern MD in July 2020, for the first time was deployed the 291st Artillery Brigade of the 58th Army, which could be armed with tactical nuclear munitions, namely 240-mm Tulip mortars and 203-mm Malka howitzers. In this way, Moscow demonstrates its readiness to turn the conflict with the United States, NATO and Ukraine into a nuclear one.

 

Against this background, Russia is forced to react to the events in Belarus. It is known that with the beginning of mass protests in Belarus against the Lukashenko regime, in August 2020 Russia has created a “reserve” of its security forces to support the Belarusian government. Part of this “reserve” was concentrated on the Russian-Belarusian border from the units of Russia’s internal troops — the RosGuards.

However, Russia would not be Russia if it limited itself to internal troops. During the same period, a series of trainings of the 1st Tank Army (HQ — near Moscow) and the 6th Combined Arms Army (HQ — St. Petersburg) of the Western MD of the Russian Armed Forces were conducted on the Belarusian and Baltic direction. At this, units of the 6th Army were redeployed to Kaliningrad region of Russia.

This demonstrated Moscow’s readiness to assist A. Lukashenko in case if he loses control of the situation in the country or the West interferes. Moreover, A. Lukashenko openly has accused Poland of intending to capture Grodno region of Belarus under the guise of protecting the Polish minority living in the region.

Suwalki Corridor or Suwalki Gap

Grodno region is strategically important for both Russia and NATO, as it is the exit of the so-called Suwalki Corridor (named after the Polish city of Suwalki) — the shortest route between Belarus and Kaliningrad region of Russia, which goes along the border between Poland and Lithuania. The capture of the Suwalki Corridor by the 1st Tank Army from the Grodno region is one of the main elements of the scenario of the “West”-type SCPE of the Armed Forces of Russia and Belarus.

Given the above circumstances, the agreement between A. Lukashenko and V. Putin on holding Russian-Belarusian exercises on a permanent basis, which was reached on August 14, is quite indicative. The implementation of such plans will enable Russia to maintain its military presence in Belarus even without creating permanent military bases on its territory. Besides, according to a number of estimates, Russian troops will be able to have access to the arsenals of the Belarusian Armed Forces, which remained from the USSR, but are in working order, replenished and renewed.

Even without these agreements, the military cooperation between Russia and Belarus is already systematic both bilaterally and within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In particular, according to preliminary plans, on September 14–25 this year, The “Slavic Brotherhood-2020” exercise is being held in Belarus. Units of the 38th Air Assault Brigade (Brest) of the Special Forces of the Belarusian Armed Forces, as well as the 76th Air Assault Division (Pskov) of the Russian Armed Forces are involved in the exercise. At the same time, units of the Armed Forces of Belarus are taking part in the main part of the Russian “Caucasus-2020” SCPE. And on October 12–16 this year, “Indestructible Brotherhood-2020” exercise of the CSTO peacekeeping forces is planned to be held in Belarus.

 

Despite Moscow’s attempts to demonstrate non-existence of aggressive intentions toward other countries, Russia’s increased military activity in the Baltic and Black Sea regions is a cause for concern and a response from NATO.

In particular, from June 2020, the main activities of the NATO exercise Defender Europe 20 are being held in Poland and the Baltic states. One of the main themes of the exercise is defence of the aforementioned Suwalki Corridor. Thus, as part of the exercise, in August 2020, Allied forces were strengthened in Poland and Lithuania. Besides, in September this year, NATO’s air defense exercise Tobruq Legacy 2020 has started in Lithuania. According to the plan of the exercise, deployment and rehearsing of combat use of Patriot, SAMP/T, Avenger, Mistral, RBS 70 and Stinger air defense systems are being worked out.

The Scale of the NATO Exercise Defender Europe 20

At the same time, from August 2020, at the Fairford air base in Great Britain, there are six B-52H strategic bombers of the US Air Force, which carry out regular flights over the Baltic and Black Sea regions, including entering the airspace of Ukraine. And on September 16, 2020, USS Roosevelt, a guided-missile destroyer from the 6th Fleet of the US Navy, entered the Black Sea.

And finally, given that the “Caucasus-2020” SCPE is a direct threat to Ukraine, from September 17 this year, international military exercise with the participation of the United States and other NATO countries Rapid Trident-2020 is being held on the Ukrainian territory. More than 4,000 servicemen with appropriate military equipment are taking part in the training. In particular, for the first time, American Bell V-22 Osprey convertibles, which have no analogues in the world, are involved in the exercises on the territory of Ukraine. All this once again testifies to the continuation of active cooperation between Ukraine and the United States and NATO in the military sphere, as well as the Western partners’ readiness to support our country in its confrontation with Russia.

 

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