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Mar 29, 2013 | 00:36 GMT

5 mins read

Russia's Surprise War Games

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a massive series of surprise military exercises in the Black Sea on Thursday, only the second time in 20 years Russia has ever conducted unscheduled drills. Putin ordered the snap war games before boarding his plane to return to Moscow from South Africa. The order was delivered by letter at 4 a.m. to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who then alerted the approximately 7,000 Russian troops in Crimea, Ukraine, to be woken and rushed to the drills. Those troops are reportedly engaged in operations with hundreds of armored vehicles, dozens of fighter jets and helicopters and approximately 30 warships.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

It is a common axiom of warfare that training should be as close to actual combat as possible to facilitate a military's ability to practice what they would actually be asked to do in combat. This realistic practice should theoretically require the multiple actors in the process to coordinate and perform as seamlessly as possible. Ideally, this will make a military more successful in war. Militaries routinely accomplish this practice through large exercises that encompass multiple branches, command levels and weapons platforms.

But not all military exercises are created equal. The larger, more impromptu and complex an exercise is, the more dangerous, potentially embarrassing and expensive that exercise becomes. Exercises also cause wear and tear on equipment and can give away valuable intelligence to potential enemies. Therefore, many countries hedge the reality of these exercises. This can be done in many ways, but the most common is to plan the exercises months or years in advance. Doing so allows for scheduling and rehearsing tasks that amount to a performance rather than a realistic assessment of an actual military drill. Compromises exist between reality and the potential negatives associated with practicing actual capabilities.

Russia's decision to start launching snap exercises — as with the Black Sea Fleet on Thursday and a drill in February that involved ground forces in the Russian Caucasus — shows a new seriousness in military preparedness. A state commits to such public exercises on this scale for only two reasons. First, because it is serious about qualitatively improving its forces for combat, and second, because it anticipates a threat. Both are relatively true for Russia at this time. 

Russia is undergoing a substantial restructuring and re-arming of its military. In recent months, the Russian Defense Ministry conducted a series of inspections, which have shown abysmal results, ranging from inadequate training to decaying supplies. For example, it was reported that two-thirds of the Black Sea Fleet's ships will not be fit for service by 2015 since most are more than 30 years old. Russia will start to replace ships and other equipment in 2013, but Putin went further and ordered an "urgent" improvement of the quality of the armed forces, which sparked the first unscheduled exercise in the Russian Caucasus. Russia understands that its military won't be made effective by simply replacing equipment; it knows it must increase its realistic training for a more qualitative improvement.

The second reason for a state to hold snap wargames is if it sees an imminent threat, which is why the location of these two unscheduled exercises in Russia is important. The first exercise was held in the Russian Caucasus, and the second was just to its west, in the Black Sea. This neighborhood is one of Russia's most sensitive, volatile and vulnerable regions. The Russian Caucasus continue to be volatile even with the war in Chechnya over. The region will also host the world's delegations at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in just 10 months.

The Russian Caucasus and Black Sea also border Georgia, with whom Russia went to war in 2008. The Black Sea is Russia's only warm water port, making it highly strategic. It is also open to a host of players, including Turkey, NATO-members Romania and Bulgaria, and Ukraine, which is engaged in a series of disputes with Russia. Russia does not see war as imminent with any of these players, though it does not exclude the growing competition amongst them.

Overall, for Russia to undergo such public and potentially dangerous or humiliating exercises shows a shift in Moscow's thinking. The Kremlin is serious about improving the quality of its military in both a functional and a realistic way. It is beginning with its most sensitive geographic military zone, though the Kremlin has hinted that this is just the start of a new series of drills for the entire military. Holding such snap exercises won't fix all of Russia's problems. The Russian military has issues rooted deeply in its demographic decline, massive corruption, competence and capacity in the military-industrial sector and more. This is just one component of many improvements that must take place.

These exercises obviously will not go unnoticed in the region. Since Russia has so far limited the number of troops taking part in the drills, it did not have to notify its neighbors that the exercises would be taking place. Already, the Ukrainian government has requested an explanation from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Ministers are expected to talk by phone Friday. Countries like Turkey will also take notice, particularly since it has been in contention with Russia (the most recent spat stemming from the 2008 Russia-Georgia war) over who gets to use the Black Sea for military purposes. The message that Russia is conveying to the region with these exercises is that it is willing to undergo such a risk in order to prepare its military for the future.

Russia's Surprise War Games
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