Military exercises in Crimea: What is Russia preparing for?
Russia is actively pursuing its efforts related to the new concept of improving the capabilities of the Russian army in various areas. Russia has changed approaches to the conduct and preparation of military campaigns and is now readying for simultaneous action in three directions, including in the Black Sea region.
Any drills conducted by NATO and Russia are today an attempt to balance capabilities
In general, Crimea exercises are an echo of a general strategy. Russia's strategy has changed, and this, in turn, has forced NATO to reconsider its own approaches. Russia is trying to improve its decision-making and actions. Given this fact, any drills conducted by NATO and Russia are today an attempt to balance capabilities.
It should be noted separately that Russia, in the format of its new concept of "anti-escalation", is planning to actually use nuclear weapons. This new reality is worthy of attention precisely today, against the backdrop of NATO's large-scale military exercises, "Saber Strike," taking place June 3-15 in Poland and the Baltic States. Some 18,000 troops from 19 states are taking part, of which 12,500 are Americans. More than a 1,000 high-capacity armored vehicles, more than 60 helicopters and fifty tanks are also involved in maneuvers. In essence, Saber Strike was NATO's response to Russian Zapad-2017 [West-2017]drills. But now everything is different.
American think-tanks are actively studying Ukrainian experience, trying to impose it on a model of military confrontation with Russia in Europe. For example, the Washington-based New Generation War Research Center (NGW Center) conducted a series of experiments on modeling possible military operations in Europe, which should help military and civilian authorities improve the structure of forces and tools required to counter Russia. The scenarios proposed by NGW were created taking into account the experience of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the beginning of hostilities in Donbas.
Now I will highlight key military risks Europe is facing today.
NATO preparations to protect the Allies pushed the Russian General Staff to new ideas and needs in their military planning
In 2016, a U.S.-based think-tank, RAND Corporation, published a report claiming that NATO was not able to protect the Baltic states. According to the results of a series of military games, it was concluded that the armored units of the Russian army will be able to capture Estonia and Latvia in just 60 hours or even less. RAND has shown that the United States must defend the Baltic States and contain aggression against them.
Now the situation has changed, both from the NATO-U.S. side and that of Russia.
NATO has strengthened its capacities to protect the Baltic States. The process of providing reinforcement for the armies of the Baltic States was reduced to a few days, although in 2015, it would have taken some four weeks. The Alliance has deployed reinforced spearhead battalions in the Baltic States and Poland, while Latvia and Lithuania have pledged, following Estonia, to increase their defense spending to 2% of GDP, as requested by NATO.
Russia does not remain idle, either. NATO's preparations for defending itself has pushed the Russian General Staff to new ideas and needs in their military planning. From Moscow's perspective, Russia is now in a "state of war" with the European Union/NATO. At the same time, Russia has updated its views on how to best tackle the wealthy Europe. It's about the whole set of those "hybrid" efforts already tested in Ukraine. It includes asymmetric non-military methods; operations to destabilize the political and social situation in other countries; financing proxy forces and supporting them with arms supplies; latent military intervention and, if necessary, an open invasion to occupy the territory and ensure a halt to any resistance. At each of the stages of this multi-dimensional war, Russia seeks to retain the initiative and play first. However, until the open stage of escalation, the General Staff of the Russian army will try to hold back the conflicts at the minimum possible level of use of force. This is what we are seeing in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian army is no longer the Soviet Army. Russia has pledged to create spearhead, flexible forces that can be quickly reformatted during the conflict. Analyzing the Zapad [West] military exercises conducted by the Russian army, and especially Zapad-2017, I can suggest that Russia has worked out both quantitative and brand new qualitative models of the development of a local military conflict, up to the operational-strategic level.
If we talk about numbers, there are reports claiming that Russia is ready to conduct combat operations in three strategic directions, including the Baltic, Black and Barents seas.
If we talk about a new quality, it's about integrating nuclear tactical weapons into the operational plan of the Russian armed forces in the European military theater as a means to ensure balance. Russia has an obvious shortage of manpower needed in case of a direct and simultaneous confrontation with all potential adversaries. This is especially true of the units and subdivisions of their ground forces. So Russia will have to make difficult decisions if it wants to reduce the risks of escalation in a situation where NATO and EU member states will be able to mobilize forces sufficient to defeat Russian troops.
Russia is using Ukraine as a testing ground for a variety of concepts and new weapons
Russia will do so under the so-called new concept of "escalation for the sake of de-escalation." The realization of the de-escalation function implies the actual use of nuclear weapons both for demonstrating determination and for direct nuclear attacks on the enemy. Russia will most probably perform the task with the use of the least powerful nuclear weapons, aimed at preventing a massive international nuclear fallout. Therefore, it is believed that Russia will be exploiting all existing contradictions between NATO Allies and keep threatening the world with the possible use of low-power nuclear weapons (0.2 Kt). They could be used to isolate the conflict zone and undermine the resolve of enemy forces and the coalition to continue any further military action. In this case, as Russia expects, the most acceptable solution for their enemy will be to cease hostilities.
At the same time, Russia is using Ukraine as a testing ground for a variety of concepts and new weapons, ranging from attacks on computer networks to the use of thermobaric ammo. Deploying unmanned aerial vehicles allowed Russians to spot artillery fire within 15 minutes, while "NATO is no longer capable of this."
For the U.S. and NATO, Russian operations in Ukraine give an idea of how a hybrid war can unfold on other territories - including Europe. And it's Ukraine's managed experience that allows Americans to carry out their modeling with fewer mistakes and assumptions. However, I can't say that Ukraine is perceived as the first echelon of defense against Russian threat. Poland is, but not Ukraine.
It was stressed numerous times that Russian troops had a good disposition for a rapid offensive on Ukraine. The units of the Russian ground forces are mostly amassed in the territory of the Western and Southern military districts. The deployment of units of the Western Military District has been planned, taking into account the confrontation with NATO forces; however, the 20th Army and its six military regiments are deployed in the immediate proximity of the Ukraine border at a distance, which makes it possible to easily strike at Kyiv.
Operations of the 20th Army could be reinforced by the efforts of the 8th Army based in Rostov. The 8th Army was formed in 2017, with its headquarters located less than 110 km from the Ukrainian border. Now this army is training personnel to wage conventional war. The deployment of Russian troops along Ukrainian borders shows how, under the current doctrine, preparations are carried out for a blitzkrieg by "a couple of regiments located in the zone of responsibility of the same headquarters, on separate, but converging, offensive lines with the well-protected rear. And all of this is happening within 80 km of the Ukrainian border."
Actually, Ukrainians have for so long been aware of these threats that, even when they are from time to time recalled by the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council or the minister of defense, they don't really sound that disturbing anymore. But when Europe launches a major military buzz, such as the "Saber Strike" drills, people suddenly ask me, what's going on. So, I actually wrote the column to address such concerns. The United States and NATO are trying to separate themselves from the evil empire with their own strength. But what about us? Well, I'll say that, for some reason, the echo of Saber Strike is heard better than shots and explosions on our own territory. That's because, in a strange way, have simply become used to that.
Serhiy Zgurets is a Director of DefenseExpress Information and Consulting Company