Drivers of Russian Grand Strategy

I’ve been traveling too much lately. Back for a while, with pen in hand. As part of a discussion last week in Stockholm, I composed this brief on main drivers of Russian grand strategy for the Stockholm Free World Forum. The paper is meant to be concise and readable, rather than a comprehensive exposition. It lays out many, though perhaps not all, of my views on what drives Russian strategy. You can download the original PDF here.


Russia is seemingly resurgent in international politics, entrenched in an escalating confrontation with the United States, while posing an increasingly global challenge for a state that was only recently regarded by the former U.S. President as a regional power in decline. Politics are often a matter of perception. In Western conception Russia typically exists in one of two analytical states, decline or resurgence. Such depictions are often paired with another dichotomy, a Russia that is tactical and opportunistic, or one driven by a coherent centrally organizing strategy. These conceptions are not especially useful. Opportunism should be assessed within the framework of a Russian leadership with a vision, and relative consensus on the country’s desired role in international affairs, i.e. tactical decisions made in pursuit of a desired end state. Decline and resurgence are relative terms, based more on perception, than useful metrics of economic and military power.

Moscow has been tethered to historical cycles of resurgence, following periods of decline, with stagnation often following mobilization. Yet stepping back from this pattern, one can readily see that over centuries Russia has been, and remains today, an enduring great power. Rus­sia is best characterized as a relatively weak great power, habitually backward in technology and socio-economic development compared to contemporaries. Hence Mos­cow’s strategic outlook has always been shaped as much by perceptions of vulnerability, threats foreign and domestic, as it has by ambition and a drive for recognition.

The Soviet Union was by far the weaker of the two super powers, despite having proven a capable adversary to the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Similarly the Russian empire, despite moments of geopolitical strength, found itself contending with more capable and technologically superior adversaries in its own time, and centrifugal forces from within. Russian decision making, strategy, and military thought remains deeply influenced by the country’s history, a shared vision among the ruling elite of Russia’s rightful place in the international system, and a strong belief in the efficacy of the military as an instrument of national power.

Past it not necessarily prologue, but history has a profound influence on Russian strategy, the state’s theory of how to attain security for itself and expand influence in international politics. While lacking the economic dynamism of present day competitors, the Russian state has a demonstrated propensity to take on stronger powers, that is compete effectively in international politics well above its relative power, or to put it more simply, bench above its weight. At the same time, Russia has suffered from periods of stagnation, internal instability, and occasional state collapse, often engaging in cycles of rebuilding rather than building.

The Russian strategy for great power competition begins with a decision to establish credible conventional and nuclear deterrence, positively shaping the military balance, which paradoxically grants Moscow confidence to engage in indirect competition against the United States. This is a strategy of cost imposition and erosion, an indirect approach which could be considered a form of raiding. As long as conventional and nuclear deterrence holds, it makes various form of competition below the threshold of war not only viable, but highly attractive. Moscow hopes to become a major strategic thorn in America’s side, engaging in geopolitical arbitrage, establishing itself as a power broker on the cheap, and effectively weakening those institutions that empower Western collective action. Ultimately, Russia seeks a deal, not based on the actual balance of power in the international system, but tied to its performance in the competition. That deal can best be likened to a form of detente, status recognition, and attendant privileges or understandings, which have profound geopolitical ramifications for politics in Europe.

The Russian challenge

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Russia measures itself first and foremost against the United States, and when seeking recognition, attention, or pursuing a deal, it is Moscow’s desire to parlay with Washington more so than any other power. Moscow sees NATO as America’s Warsaw Pact, not a collective defense alliance where the policies or views of the individual states matter. The Russian challenge, and consequently the inputs into Russian strategy, can be narrowly defined as a contest born of conflicting visions for the security architecture of Europe, Russia’s drive to restore a privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, and a fundamental difference in normative outlooks on the conduct of international relations, that is how states should behave in international politics and therefore what the character of the international order should be.

Russian leaders seek a revision of the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, having concluded that they have no stake in the current security architecture of Europe. Moscow sees the post-Cold War period as one akin to the treaty at Versailles, an order imposed at a time of Russian weakness. Russian borders today most closely mirror the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty signed by Bolsheviks with the Central Powers of World War I, and while Russia may not be principally expansionist, it has always sought geographic depth against the stronger powers of Europe. Having no stake in the current European security framework, Russia’s leadership has instead pursued a traditional strategy for attaining security via establishment of buffer states against political-economic or military blocks. This is a strategy of extended defense, borne of vulnerability, and a consensus that emerged after Operation Barbarossa 1941 in Russian strategic circles that Russia must never again be placed in the position of fighting an industrial scale conflict on its own territory.

Buffer states are not neutral by design, but represent a zero-sum calculus, in that they are either Russia’s buffers against NATO, or conversely NATO’s buffers against Russia. Moscow believes it must impose limited sovereignty on its neighbors, so as to control their strategic orientation. Russian leaders have come to see neighbors as liabilities, who will often side with opposing great powers. This process has led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, by using force to impose its will, Moscow inspires the apprehension and hedging behavior among its neighbors which drives them to balance and contain Russia in the first place. Though Moscow always seeks to redress these trends through non-forceful instruments to retain its influence, when faced with loss or geopolitical defeat, it invariably resorts to use of force, casting itself as the revisionist threat to its neighbors.

Beyond chasing security, Russia seeks to restore a privileged sphere of influence, believing itself to be the rightful hegemon in its own region, and reintegrate the former Soviet space to the extent possible around its own leadership. However, Moscow lacks the economic means, or an attractive model of development for other states, still witnessing a steady fragmentation of influence over its ‘near abroad.’ There are other forces at play. A century ago Russia found itself between two dynamic rising powers, Germany and Japan. Today it is sandwiched between two expansionist economic powers, China and the European Union, both more attractive to neighboring states.

Russian long term thinking is driven by a vision of Moscow at the center of its own sphere of influence, but in practice Russian policy is defined by loss aversion, trying to check the slow unraveling of Russian influence in what once constituted the former Soviet empire. Not unlike other powers, Russian strategy is deliberate, but also the product of reactions to crises, and partly emergent in practice. Moscow sees the United States as instrumental behind this geopolitical entropy, and while Russian elites do not see their country in decline, they are nonetheless vexed by the gravitational pull of more dynamic states, versus their own lackluster economic stagnation.

Beyond extended defense, and restoring itself as a dominant regional hegemon within its own region, Russian strategic culture has not shed itself of the perception that the country is a providential great power. Moscow views this status as de facto hereditary. Russia has a special role in the world because it is Russia, and Moscow believes it has a mission. Born of its Soviet inheritance, today Russia sees itself as being responsible for international security, in large part because of its strategic nuclear arsenal and substantial military power, and equally because it can play the role of a conservative counterweight to American ideological revisionism. Whether in Syria, or Venezuela, Russia considers itself a defender of the international status quo, and of the nation state system, while seeing the United States as a radical force revising international affairs.

The Russian outlook is hardly dissimilar from other classical great powers, most of whom practiced a form of great power exceptionalism and hypocrisy. Yet Moscow’s vision lends intellectual coherence to the baser drives of its foreign policy, beyond mere pursuit of security at the expense of the sovereignty of others, or simply more power. Russia is a cynical power, but Russian elites do have a vision, and a story they tell themselves about the ‘why’ in Russian foreign policy. The current Russian conception of their role in international affairs is inextricably linked to the United States, which is why Moscow is on a perpetual quest for recognition, and a deal with Washington.

A clash of visions

Image result for moscow at yalta

Less recognized is the fundamental clash in outlooks on international politics, and the conduct of affairs among states. Moscow wants to sit on all the institutions governing the current international order, and be engaged in contact groups or forums of discussion for various international issues, that is to advance its interests and be seen as a system determining power in international affairs. This is not unusual, nor is it the source of the conflict with Washington. The problem is that Russia retains a view of the international system that sees only great powers as having true sovereignty, and the ability to conduct an independent foreign policy. Small states inherently have limited sovereignty from this perspective. More importantly, the purpose of international politics is to ensure stability or ’predictability’ of relations among the great powers, avoiding a great power war. Therefore, in Russian conception, not only are nuclear powers first among equals, but the interests of other states are subordinate to this pursuit. Moscow thinks that a world stabilized by spheres of influence (Yalta 1945), and arbitration among a concert of powers (1815 Concert of Europe), is the more stable system and one where it has the greatest chance of pursuing its own interests.

Notably, this vision places primacy on military strength and status as a nuclear power, over the economic performance. Russian leaders have also come to believe that because the West places emphasis on individual sovereignty, and human rights, over the power of the state, it inherently does not see authoritarian regimes as being legitimate or having legitimate interests. Thus emerges a mutually exclu­sive outlook on international politics, where Russia feels it is on one side of the argument with China, promoting a conservative international order with preference towards the interests of great powers, and on the other an ideo­logical vision that promotes the independence of smaller states and the liberty of individuals within their respective political systems.

The U.S. may see Moscow’s agenda as fundamentally retrograde, but the visible ideological core at the center of Washington’s foreign policy consensus has convinced Russia’s leadership that the United States will always seek regime change in Russia, and will never recognize Vladi­mir Putin’s authoritarian regime as having legitimate inte­rests. Moscow’s interpretation of U.S. intent tends towards the paranoid, indulging in unfounded narratives of U.S. organized political subversion on Russia’s periphery. Yet at the same time Washington’s vision for Russia’s integration with the West always had an unstated regime change com­ponent, presuming it would encourage Moscow to make a democratic transition. Moscow correctly perceives a missi­onary impulse at the core of U.S. foreign policy.

The ways of Russian strategy

Shoigu studying geography

Russia has always been better at leveraging military and diplomatic instruments of national power as opposed to its economy. Moscow invested heavily in the restoration of conventional military power, building a balanced military that includes a general purpose force for local conflicts, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, and a capable nuclear arsenal for theater nuclear warfare. This allows Moscow to impose its will on neighbors via limited conventional operations, but more importantly engage in coercive bar­gaining and manipulation of risk against the United States and NATO. Inherent in Russian strategy is the presump­tion that interests at stake favor Moscow in these contests, allowing Russia to threaten long range conventional stri­kes in crises where adversaries may well back down. Sca­lable nuclear escalation is always on the table – something to think about. As a consequence the challenge for the West is not simply a capability gap, but a cognitive gap in understanding what matters in the modern character of war between great powers.

Russian military strategy is heavily influenced by outlooks on the current and emerging character of war, seeing it as one based on blitzkrieg with long range precision guided weapons, and a contest for information superiority. The Russian General Staff sees warfare as systemic or ’nodal’ in nature, whereby a military system has critical nodes which can destroy its ability to fight, and similarly a political sys­tem has elements essential to its political will or resolve in a crisis. Russian operational concepts are geared towards shaping the environment during a threatened period of war, and achieving success in a contest of systems during the initial period of war. There is little notion in Russian military thought of a conventional-only war with NATO, or that beyond a decisive initial period of war, there are likely to be other sustained phases, i.e. one side will be pro­ven successful in the early weeks of the contest. From the outset, Moscow is resolved to the prospect of employing non-strategic nuclear weapons should it find itself on the losing side of the war.

In contests Russia has used military power on the basis of reasonable sufficiency, not seeking overmatch so much as coercive power to achieve desired political ends. Recent wars have demonstrated some efficacy in pairing indirect warfare with conventional military power, but it is ultima­tely hard military power that has achieved desired outcomes in local contests. The Russian General Staff values the utility of political warfare, and believes that a conflict will start with organized political subversion, information warfare and the like. However, they see this sub-conven­tional challenge as the leading edge of a spear, where the true coercive power comes from Western technological military power and awesome arsenal of precision guided weapons. Moscow sees non-contact warfare, and aero­space blitzkrieg, as the defining elements of the Western way of war. These are paired with political subversion to create color revolutions within the Russian self-ascribed sphere of influence. Conventional elements are therefore the finishing stroke of an undeclared war which begins with non-militay means.

Buttressed by a growing conventional and nuclear deter­rent, Moscow is more confident in pursuing indirect com­petition via hacking, political warfare, and other forms of coercion against the United States, in the hope of impo­sing costs over time. This is both a form of retaliation for Western sanctions, and a more ’medieval’ approach to great power contests, leveraging the ability to reach in and directly affect political cohesion among Westerns states. It is more effective when considering Western efforts to reduce the role of the nation state, and establish interde­pendent economies based on the freedom of movement of goods and labor. Russia pairs cost imposition against the United States with a series of gambits on the global stage to establish an arbitrage role, or become a power broker, in contests, conflicts, or issues that the West cares about. The end goal is to create transaction costs for U.S. foreign policy, force the West to deal with Moscow, with the even­tual desire of compelling a negotiation on core Russian interests described above.

A third effort is centered on key powers in Europe, crea­ting asymmetric dependencies via energy pipelines, trade, or other deals with their respective elites. Russia is more powerful than any European state, but much weaker than the European Union. Moscow’s problem in the rela­tive balance of power is self-evident, hence Russia seeks to weaken European ability for collective action, and the role of institutions that limits its freedom of maneuver in foreign policy. Russia is less interested in NATO cohesion, and more concerned with the attractiveness and economic expansionism of the EU. NATO in Russian conception is simply a platsdarm for the projection of U.S. military power.

The EU is not simply a European project, but also an out­growth of U.S. grand strategy. That is, Europe does not enjoy strategic autonomy from Washington. Russia refuses to accept a European theater of military operations where the U.S. enjoys military dominance, while its ally the EU has economic and political primacy. Therefore, to the extent possible, Russia will work actively to encourage centrifugal forces on the continent, hoping they will restore the poli­tical primacy of the nation-state, and the reemergence of a concert-like system of powers over that of political or mili­tary blocks. Russian political influence, information ope­rations, and similar efforts are bound by this overall vision not for geographic revisionism, but for the restoration of Russia’s relative power in European affairs.


Rethinking the Structure and Role of Russia’s Airborne Forces

Re-posting my article on the Russian Airborne from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Program Issue Brief #4. This is a great center (or centre?), and has some of the more interesting articles you’re going to find on the Russian armed forces, by some of the best experts in the field. If you follow the Russian military then you should try and make time for their articles and issue briefs.


The Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) compose one of the more important instruments in the General Staff’s toolkit, serving as a rapid reaction force for local conflicts, supporting special operations, or striking behind enemy lines in a conventional war. The VDV has proven to be leading edge of Russian (and Soviet) military power in operations from the 1956 intervention in Hungary, to the 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea. A combat arm distinct from the Land Forces, the VDV may be used tactically, operationally, or play a strategic role, depending on how it is employed. Whether responding to a crisis, or choosing to visit the territory of its neighbor without notice, Russia is likely to lean on the highest readiness units with elite training, and good mobility, which in many cases means the VDV.

Today the VDV consists of two parachute divisions, two air assault divisions, four independent brigades, along with a signals and an independent reconnaissance brigade. Parachute divisions can be air dropped to seize enemy air fields and key points, making them a strategic asset, while air assault units are flown into secured landing zones. Brigades represent a mix, often with one parachute battalion and two assault battalions. The Russian operation in Crimea, together with other military actions have demonstrated that if the VDV can seize an airport then they can fly in supporting battalions, and those follow-on units can secure terrain for Russia’s land forces to enter the battle space. In theory, it is a Soviet Airborne, simply cut down to Russian size (VDV Divisions used to have three regiments each, but were long ago reduced to two).

The Russian General Staff has been experimenting with this force since 2016, and according to recent announcements by their commander, Colonel General Andrey Serdyukov, the VDV is in for a rethink. Serdyukov is a well-known figure in Russian military circles. An airborne officer by training, he had seen combat experience in the Chechen wars. As deputy commander and chief of staff of the Southern Military District in 2013, he helped organize the operation to seize Crimea. Serdyukov has also been sanctioned by Ukraine, allegedly for commanding forces in the Donbas 2014-2015. Subsequently promoted to command the VDV in 2016, Serdyukov was seriously injured outside Murmansk in a motor vehicle accident. He was on the way personally to observe Airborne operations, together with several staff members, as part of the wider Zapad 2017 strategic command staff exercise. Having recovered, the VDV commander announced his intention to remodel the force, stating in October 2018 that the Airborne is officially on a “search, testing new forms and methods of force employment to answer the challenges of modern warfare.”

can't assault an enemy airbase without a photo

And, indeed, not all is well with Russia’s airborne forces. Two problems stand out. The first reflects a degree of conceptual confusion. The USSR had two concepts for the VDV: one arm was strategic, composed of parachute divisions, while the other was air assault. In theory, the parachute units answered to the General Staff, while air assault units were subordinate to the military districts and supported their advance on the battlefield. Air assault units would seize key terrain or strike enemy reserves not far from the line of contact with the ground forces. But in practice the VDV always had a third role. Early in the 1960s, and subsequently during the war in Afghanistan 1979-1989, deployed Airborne units were armed with heavy equipment in the role of motor rifle units, receiving tanks and artillery. Basically, they were used as elite mounted infantry. These ad hoc changes are similar to the processes shaping the current VDV, though after some improvisation, it increasingly seems that Russia’s General Staff is starting to impose an actual vision (even if – caveat emptor – General Staff visions tend to change every few years, together with Russian force structures).


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Second, despite its service record, and esprit de corps, the VDV can be seen as an anachronism: yet another piece of Soviet inheritance that Russians might qualify as a “briefcase without a handle”. Rather than parachuting into battle, in practice the VDV has spent most of its time in the role of motor rifle units on lightly armored vehicles. Allegedly, at one point during the New Look reforms, then Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and then Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov even considered cutting the entire combat arm and handing it over to the land forces. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. Russia’s airborne and Russia’s logistics are woefully misaligned – maintaining an alternate park of airborne infantry fighting vehicles and a host of specialized equipment for the VDV is not cheap – while the force spends much of its time fighting as another form of motor rifle infantry. So it is no surprise that their commander thinks the VDV is due for new operating concepts, and force restructuring.

There are other problems. Optimistically, Russia’s military transport aviation (VTA) is at best able to deliver between one and two regiments in a sortie. The aviation park of Il-76 heavy transports is simply not big enough for serious airborne operations, and certainly not in a contested environment. Given that Russia’s VDV trains to force generate as battalion tactical groups, more than likely the maximum air lift capacity is for two or three such formations. In practice, this means that Russia has one of the world’s largest airborne forces (approx 45,000 strong), but without the air lift to use them in their designated role. Indeed, according to Russian defense journalist Ilya Kramnik if Russia wanted to deliver its airborne in the initial period of war it would have to increase the air transportation park four-fold. This is simply impossible given the current rate of Il-76MD-90 modernization and aircraft production. At best the VTA is likely to tread water on the number of currently available aircraft in the strategic airlift role.

VDV praciting loading

Therefore, the General Staff seems to have chosen an entirely different direction: the VDV’s air assault divisions are set to become heavier, with an expanded force structure, tanks, and air defenses, while independent brigades will conduct heliborne operations. Parachute divisions will still train to perform the more strategic air assault mission. At Vostok-2018, 700 soldiers and 50 vehicles were air dropped at Tsugol range, employing roughly 25 Il-76MD transports. While airborne divisions still train for the airborne assault via Il-76, tactical and operational mobility may increasingly come from helicopter based operations and raids behind enemy lines in support of ground forces.

Serdyukov announced that experiments during Vostok 2018 strategic manoeuvres (September 11-18) determined the future tactics and overall force development. Those experiments employed a special battalion tactical group, based on the 31st brigade, suggesting that the size and scope of the concept is considerably different from the Soviet 1980s formulation. On the second day of the exercise, VDV units aboard 45 Mi-8 helicopters and two Mi-26 helicopters, practiced three types of air assault: low altitude parachute, repelling, and dismount. Gunship support included eight Ka-52 and fourteen Mi-24 helicopters. The much larger Mi-26 helicopters delivered Tigr light utility vehicles, and recon ATVs, serving as an air mobile reserve for the operation. This is a distinctly large helicopter assault formation, intended to deploy a reinforced VDV battalion, with gunship support, and light reserves.

airborne repellingairborne ATVshelicopter units

Recent reporting by journalists, like Aleksei Ramm, suggests that the 31st brigade has become an experimental unit, with its own army aviation support, composed of two squadrons of Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters. This would give the 31st native air mobility, granting the commander freedom to design and execute an operation. Otherwise, the VDV has to negotiate access to army aviation, which is not necessarily assigned to support it, and may have other competing requirements imposed by ground force operations. Not only would this dramatically reduce the time required for VDV to execute a manoeuvre, but it would add considerable flexibility to the force, though heliborne operations would limit the airborne to light utility vehicles. This force structure redesign would allow the VDV to deploy much faster in response to a local conflict, or execute their own raids behind enemy lines in a conventional war. The VDV would also become much more suitable to expeditionary operations where there is a low barrier to entry, and good prospects for elite infantry to make a difference.

Availability may be the driving force behind this force structure redesign. While VTA is in the doldrums, Russia is much richer in helicopters. The Russian armed forces substantially increased their helicopter park during the first State Armament Program (2011-2020), establishing three brigades and six regiments. Russian experts like Anton Lavrov suggest that over 600 helicopters (they were buying about 130/year since 2011) may have been purchased for the armed forces and various ministries through 2017. Each combined arms army is being assigned a supporting helicopter regiment, while every military district will house an independent helicopter brigade. Though the rotary wing park is also not without some problems, given there are no mid-range options between the venerable Mi-8 variants and the giant Mi-26. Nonetheless, Russia bought far more helicopters than 4th generation aircraft, and is steadily filling out new army aviation regiments and brigades.

These changes are primarily, but not solely, intended for the VDV. Land force brigades and divisions will also develop company or platoon size detachments that are certified for air mobile operations – at least in the Southern Military District, if Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov has his way (Serdyukov is not the only one with a vision for helicopter assets). Some of these changes may bring nostalgia for the 1980s, when heliborne VDV units were assigned to support operational manoeuvre groups, and select Soviet army detachments were air mobile. In 2002, the army handed over its helicopters to the air force, which then got rolled into the aerospace forces in 2015. They similarly gave up air assault brigades to the VDV, making that exclusively the VDV’s business. Now the army looks to reclaim air mobility, and seems likely to compete for the same helicopter assets that the VDV will need to realize this new concept of operations. The implication for NATO, used to Russian forces getting places via rail, or driving there, is that Western forces will increasingly have to think at the tactical and operational level about a segment of Russian forces becoming air mobile in the initial period of war.

The introduction of tanks into Russian air assault units represents a countervailing trend, sacrificing mobility for firepower. In 2016, the 7th and 76th Air Assault Divisions, together with four brigades, were slated to receive tank companies. Since then, the 7th and 76th are being expanded with tank battalions, while one regiment (331st) will receive Russia’s new Sprut-SD airborne tank destroyer as part of a force structure experiment. The VDV is due to add three T-72B3 tank battalions in total. Tanks have been introduced on and off to the VDV throughout the Soviet period, as they have to the Naval Infantry (which is also getting tanks back). It seems almost a matter of tradition that the VDV receives tanks after combat experience demonstrates the need for them to employ heavier firepower in a ‘motor rifle’ role, they are subsequently removed, only to be reintroduced later.

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VDV with tanks in Afghanistan

Generally, the VDV continues to do well in terms of equipment. It has fared well in both State Armament Programmes (2011-2020 & 2018-2027), perhaps as a consolation prize for not receiving an expanded force structure. The former trend continues, while the latter seems finally about to change. In 2015, the head of the VDV at the time, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, sought to restore all four divisions to their former three regiment size. This did not happen, since money was prioritized for procuring capabilities and creating new army formations. Nonetheless, as of late 2018, the 76th Air Assault Division in Pskov is slated to receive a third regiment. Meanwhile an independent air assault battalion has already been established in Crimea, the 171st, structurally part of the 7th Air Assault Division. The VDV also received a combat service support battalion in Orehovo. Hence Russia’s airborne has not only gained upgrades in firepower, but it is growing in size as well, and working on new operational concepts for how to make the combat arm relevant in modern conflicts.

But if size and materiel is one measure, what about quality? According to Andrey Serdyukov, the VDV now has 30,000 servicemen and sergeants under contract service, which represents 70% of the force. His goal is to focus the VDV on being able to generate entirely contract staffed battalion tactical groups with an overall contract level for the force of 80%. During the tumult of the military reforms, 2008-2012, the VDV was de facto the only reasonably well staffed force available for handling local conflicts. This is no longer the case, and Russia’s airborne must compete for a future role alongside increasingly better equipped and larger ground forces. Although it is once again being saddled with a ‘motor rifle lite’ role, the General Staff is still positioning the VDV as a high readiness reaction force, and an air mobile component that offers the Russian military new options at operational depths.

Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide system

I’ve recently put out an article on Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide system in the well known Russian journal The New Times, under the title “ЧТО ВСЕ-ТАКИ ПУТИН ПОДАРИЛ РОССИЯНАМ НА НОВЫЙ ГОД,” but for those interested, please find the unedited English version below, which hopefully covers the subject in some depth.

Earlier in March 2018, Vladimir Putin announced at his annual address to the federal assembly that a Russian hypersonic boost-glide system, named Avangard, would start entering serial production. Subsequently on December 26th, 2018 Russian officials claimed that they had successfully conducted a test from the Dombarovsky missile site, to the Kura test range on Kamchatka, some 3,760 miles away. Russia’s president proudly announced that the system as a wonderful ‘New Year’s gift’ to Russia. According to Putin’s statement, the hypersonic glide vehicle is able to conduct intensive maneuvers at speeds in excess of Mach 20, which would render it “invulnerable” to any existing or prospective missile defenses. In this article I will briefly explore the logic behind Russia’s hypersonic boost glide program, recent claims of technological accomplishment, and the strategic implications of deploying such weapon systems.

Despite rather questionable public statements about the technical characteristics of this weapon system, a number of which appear inconsistent, it is clear that Russian military science has made considerable advancements along one of the most sophisticated axis of weapons research. While claims pertaining to the readiness of this system to enter serial production, and operational service, are probably exaggerated, the more important questions are conceptual. More than likely Russia will be able to deploy a hypersonic boost glide system in the 2020s, perhaps alongside other hypersonic weapons projects, but the promise of this technology was always at the tactical-operational level of war, not strategic. This was never considered a ‘game changer’ as a system for the delivery of strategic nuclear weapons. If anything, Russia has invested a substantial amount of money, and years of research, in overdoing its strengths. Beyond a somewhat militant demonstration of ‘Russian national achievement’ for domestic audiences, it’s unclear if this weapon system truly answers Russia’s strategic challenges in the coming decades. The question is not whether it works, or when it will work, but does it even matter?

Hypersonic boost glide weapons function by using a multi-stage ballistic missile as the boost phase, throwing a vehicle into near earth orbit, which then descends and begins gliding at hypersonic speeds along the edge of the atmosphere. As the vehicle descends back to earth, it pulls upwards, and begins skimming the atmosphere in a ‘glide’ phase, before diving downwards onto its target at the terminal phase. Russia has spent years developing this technology under a project referenced as Object 4202, which married a series of  experimental hypersonic glide vehicles, such as the Yu-71, with a liquid fueled ICBM УР-100УНТТХ (NATO designation SS-19 mod 2 Stiletto). This system builds on the Soviet Union’s extensive research into hypersonic weapons programs , including work on a hypersonic-boost aircraft named «Спираль», a modified S-200V surface-to-air missile under the project name Холод, and hypersonic cruise missile programs, such as Kh-80 and Kh-90 GELA (гиперзвуковой экспериментальный летательный аппарат).

kh-90 gela
Kh-90 GELA

Although claimed successes in testing may have come as a surprise in 2018, in truth Russian officials have been announcing tests of a hypersonic boost glide vehicle, using the УР-100УНТТХ missile, as far back as the strategic nuclear forces exercise in 2004. Hence, this particular system has been in publicly acknowledged development for at least 14 years, and the glide vehicle itself for quite a few years beforehand. The booster, УР-100 (SS-19), is a 105 ton liquid fueled silo-based missile, which together with the boost glide vehicle payload proved too long for a standard silo. Hence this system is being tested in a modified R-36M2 silo (SS-18 Satan), and although it is being developed with the УР-100, it is meant for the much heavier liquid fueled missile currently in testing, RS-28 Sarmat. While the question of boost method may seem a technicality, the boosting mechanism is actually quite deterministic of the strategic role this weapon can play, as I will discuss a bit later in this article.

However, the principal challenges with this system have little to do with the decades established technology of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or boosting objects into near earth orbit. Hypersonic boost glide vehicles, if successful, represent a major breakthrough in material sciences, as the object must be able to withstand incredibly high temperatures with the payload and guidance system intact. Although impossible to verify, Russian announcements can often be categorized as ‘true lies,’ impressive sounding figures that have some factual basis, but are inevitably inaccurate. The proposition that the vehicle can reach mach 27 is likely true only during the brief return phase, when it is falling back to earth like a rock from near earth orbit, prior to beginning its hypersonic glide at the edges of the atmosphere. The vehicle itself will have considerably different speeds during the pull-up, glide, and dive to target phase, while having to endure incredible temperatures.

Below are a few graphical illustrations available on the web

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In U.S. testing of an analogous system in 2011, Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), the vehicle was able to sustain glide at mach 20 speeds for three minutes, enduring a temperature of 3500 Fahrenheit. These figures track with Russian statements on temperatures experienced, but the actual speeds and altitudes at which the Russian vehicle is able to glide, and whether the systems actually survive this experience, remain a mystery. Although Russia’s defense sector seems to have made progress on this weapon system, claims that it is ready for serial production, or operational deployment in the near future, should be treated with educated skepticism. Ironically, the most significant potential breakthrough is in material sciences, not in building a seemingly scary strategic weapon.

Yet the rationale for Avangard seems less than straightforward when compared to other Russian hypersonic weapons programs, including the Tsirkon 3M22 scramjet hypersonic cruise missile, and the Kinzhal Kh-47M2 aeroballistic missile. Those are operational depth systems able to deliver meaningful conventional or nuclear payloads to shape the military balance in a theater of military operations. They can offset U.S. conventional superiority, and pose genuine challenges in conventional warfare. What does Avangard do for Russia that existing silo-based, road-mobile, air-launched, and submarine launched missiles cannot?

supposed image of the vehicle (draped on the right)

The Avangard system is best seen as one element in an expensive Russian strategy to develop technological hedges for a security environment perhaps 20-30 years from now where the United States might deploy a cost effective missile defense system, making a percentage of Russia’s nuclear deterrent vulnerable to interception. To be clear, there is no missile defense system now, or on the horizon, able to intercept Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Modern ICBMs can come with multiple reentry vehicles and numerous penetration aids or false targets, creating a complex ‘threat cloud’ that would make interception an improbable business. Nonetheless, ever since the Bush administration chose in 2002 to exit the 1972 ABM Treaty, Russian leadership has been concerned that the United States could eventually devalue the deterrence provided by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Russia’s General Staff worries that a vast arsenal of long range conventional cruise missiles, paired with a semi-viable missile defense, would pose major challenges for their calculations to ensure the ability of Russian nuclear forces to deliver ‘unacceptable’ or ‘tailored’ damage in the coming decades. The 1972 ABM Treaty was not just a cornerstone of Cold War arms control, but fundamental to Russian military thinking on strategic stability, based on mutual vulnerability at the strategic level. Ever since June 1941, Soviet, and subsequently Russian, military thought has been wracked by the possibility of a disarming first strike, and the need to position Russian forces along a strategy of ‘counter-surprise.’

However, unlike other expensive strategic projects, such as the Poseidon nuclear powered torpedo, Avangard does not contribute to a survivable second strike. Thus there are a few ways to interpret the actual purpose of this weapon. The first is as a retaliatory-meeting strike system to attack high-value targets, i.e. civilian targets with political or economic significance, which will provide some insurance for a counter value strike. The second is that it is a first strike weapon against hard to penetrate targets. Since Avangard is silo based, designed for heavier liquid fueled ICBMs, in the event of strategic attack the boosting missile would not be survivable. It must be fired either first, or in a “launch under attack” scenario, when Russia has confirmed a U.S. launch, but the missiles have not yet impacted.

Avangard may be designed to give Russia’s RVSN the ability to penetrate hard targets, getting around missile defenses, and leveraging greater accuracy to take out well-hardened facilities. That said, from a nuclear warfighting standpoint, this makes Avangard a somewhat specialized, but expensive strategic nuclear weapon. Given how few of these systems Russia is likely to be able to afford, the weapon may offer some targeting advantages, but at a high price relative to the benefits. Another possibility is that this is not a system to get around future missile defenses, but a first strike system to be used specifically against missile defenses, clearing the way for the rest of Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Even if more accurate and survivable in flight, Avangard is a questionable investment when compared to the numerous road-mobile ICBM systems Russia fields today, including Topol-M and Rs-24 Yars (but then the logic for Russia’s SSBN program is also somewhat circumspect).

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Perhaps in the future, Avangard will be deployed on a road-mobile launcher, but as conceived, this system adds little to Russia’s existing large strategic nuclear arsenal. An expensive insurance policy that in no way alters the strategic nuclear balance either today or tomorrow, which is why the reaction in Washington has been so muted. If anything, the United States should thank Russia for investing money in such super weapons, instead of buying large quantities of conventional precision guided munitions.

Moscow has sought to leverage Avangard and similar novel systems to sell the notion of a qualitative arms race to Washington, D.C., hoping to establish a bilateral agenda for summits. Yet while the world is genuinely witnessing a renewed period of nuclear modernization, with qualitatively new or novel weapon systems in development, there is no arms race in progress. The major nuclear powers of today are pursuing distinctly divergent strategies, concepts, and requirements behind their nuclear weapons programs, rather than racing which each other for superiority. This is why Avangard, if completed and deployed, is unlikely to alter strategic military balance or elicit any meaningful response from Washington, D.C.

Is a Russian military operation against Ukraine likely in the near future?

Following the November 25th Kerch Strait naval skirmish, in which Russia seized three Ukrainian boats,  Ukrainian leadership has issued warnings of a Russian buildup near Ukraine’s borders. These began in early December and have led to a media echo chamber of concerns that a Russian attack on Ukraine is imminent, in part bolstered by press releases from ISW. Actual evidence of Russian preparations for offensive operations, force movements indicating an unexpected buildup, or an imminent attack, is hard to come by. In this somewhat longer post I want to explore the existing evidence, what little there is, and examine a few conflict scenarios that may be within the realm of possibility in coming months.

Unfortunately this simmering conflict is subject to frequent false alarms, while actual points of escalation are rarely predicted, as was the case on November 25th. It is relatively easy to take a week’s worth of Russian troop movements, equipment deployments, drills, and MoD announcements, compile them together into a bullet point list of nefarious activities, and then declare them ‘data points’ indicating preparations for an invasion. As of today it seems Ukraine will not be extending the 30 day state of martial law, which casts some doubt on the urgency and immediacy of the anticipated Russian threat as presented earlier this month by Ukrainian authorities.

The more problematic element in all of this has been senior official Russian statements, which suggest a change in Moscow’s stance on dealing with Ukraine is afoot. Sergey Lavrov, Maria Zakharova, and Sergey Naryshkin, have issued statements expecting a possible Ukrainian ‘provocation’ and or ‘attack’ which could be interpreted as indications and warnings of Moscow preparing the information space, i.e. setting expectations of renewed violence in the coming weeks. However, they may also be a poor Russian attempt at getting Washington, D.C. to restrain Ukraine, or otherwise influence Ukrainian decision making to Russian benefit.

The Russian narrative offers cause for concern, because it is a form of signaling not dissimilar from official statements in the run up to the Russian conflict with Georgia in 2008. That said, it is likely some officials in Moscow believed Ukraine would try to use martial law as a cover for a military operation in the Donbas, especially given their experience with Saakashvili in 2008. Although real evidence is scant, I’ll try to unpack the different stories, and the likelihood of an upcoming Russian military operation against Ukraine.

Bottom line up front: Almost every year there is a sizable artillery duel that takes place after the holiday truce (clashes likely to resume between orthodox Christmas on January 7 and perhaps the old new year on January 14th), and so a notable escalation in violence is likely in January, but there is no evidence of Russian preparations for a major assault in Ukraine, certainly not in Crimea.  It is possible, but highly improbable. Most of the information available reflects planned modernization, expected force structure changes, and troop movements on the Russian side not indicative of unusual activity or preparations for an assault. However, as covered years ago on this blog, the long term force posture and structure changes to create three divisions along Ukraine’s borders, return earlier displaced brigades, and a focus on modernizing equipment in the Southern MD, mean that capacity and capability is there to engage in a high intensity conventional conflict with Ukraine at any time. Ukrainian leadership has used evidence from these long term trends to create the sense of an imminent tactical threat, but that is not the case, and they likely know it.

Expectations of an attack are based on three disparate sets of information, if we can charitably call them that, which are seemingly being woven together by various outlets, blogs, and sites like ISW who warn of Russian preparations for an imminent attack. The first is an alleged increase in Russian hardware in the Rostov region of the Southern Military District. The second is a series of disparate troop movements in Crimea, which in and of themselves do not speak to anything, but some believe are indications of a Russian operation against Ukraine’s Kherson region, presumably to seize the Crimea-Dnepr fresh water canal. The third involves statements by Russia’s MFA, Sergey Naryshkin, and others, that indicate Russian preparations for a conflict in the near future.

Issue #1 The Russian tank build up in the east and frightening Google photos of lots of tanks

Poroshenko on Sky News earlier this month with google satellite imagery


Ukraine’s chief of general staff, Victor Muzhneko, stated that there is an increase in Russian tanks near the Ukrainian border, having grown from 93 to 250 within two weeks from mid-September. This information was spread by a Ukrainian run English-language blog run by Dylan Malyasov, which is a defense news amalgamator. The problem is that these are mostly T-62 variants (M/MV), which have long been retired from the Russian military, and are not in service with Russian trained separatist forces either. This tank last saw service during the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, and was considered obsolete decades ago. There is no Russian unit that fields T-62 tanks today, or T-64 tanks for that matter. The Russian armed forces use this tank for target practice during major military exercises, as was the case in recently held Vostok 2018.

Separatist forces use T-64BV and T-72B1 variants, which are different main battle tanks, but can perform the same missions and are comparable in their performance characteristics. The T-62 is a completely different design, using different caliber ammunition, sights, fire control, and so on – so it is not possible for someone trained on a T-72 to just jump into this tank and ‘invade Ukraine.’ At this point the same can be said of T-64BVs being supplied to the two separatist corps, doubtfully anyone in line Russian units is current and certified to operate either T-62s, or T-64s. Russian forces use more modern T-72BA or B3 variants almost exclusively, with select units fielding T-80Us or T-80BVM.

Here is a quick slide of T-72B3 use by Russian forces in Ukraine 2014, T-64BV manned by separatists, and a T-62M

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Below we can see the alleged tank build up near Ukraine’s borders. Note the rest of the vehicle park at the base, and the contingent, remains the same after the arrival of these tanks, which suggests that they are here for storage and not a force addition.

August 16 – clearing for tanks
September 23 most of the tanks have arrived
September 30 – about 250 tanks there

The main force currently being supplied with refurbished Russian T-62M tanks is the Syrian Army, particularly the 5th Corps. These tanks are coming out of Russian reserve storehouses with T-62s and BMP infantry fighting vehicles. During Vostok 2018 there was news of T-62s being activated and shipped east, but in reality several batches of these vehicles were loaded and shipped West in October. Ukraine’s alleged tank build up is almost certainly a series of old T-62s taken out of the Central Tank Reserve Base in Ulan Ude, which were tracked through social media (you can get a more detailed story on the T-62 shipment from DFR Lab) as arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, which is where Muzhenko’s photos are from. Subsequently these tanks tend to show up at the port of Novorossiysk for shipment to Syria via the ‘Syrian Express.’

Storage base in Ulan-Ude, before September and after September of this year. A number of tanks have moved from the lot, indicating that some of the vehicles likely came from this base.

T-62M tanks heading west from Central Military District and same ones arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, some are likely destined for Syria.

The recently arrived tanks near Ukraine’s borders are most likely being stored in Rostov region near the port for shipment, or may be used in training, but the story that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine with ancient tanks that they themselves don’t use and don’t train on stretches the imagination beyond the realm of the possible. It is equally possible that these tanks are there to establish a new reserve structure. Russia has been lacking mobilization force structure, and at best has developed a territorial battalion type reserve system for infrastructure defense. Operational reserve capacity comes out of active units which force generate units from active servicemen rather than mobilize reservists. Therefore one possible explanation is that these older vehicles are designed to park equipment for some nascent reserve force structure.

What’s frustrating is that Ukraine’s military leadership doubtlessly knows all of this, which makes it hard to understand why Muzhenko would use google earth satellite images of old T-62 tanks to push this story in the media. Any military analyst who studies the Russian armed forces could likely tell you this information. Yet Petro Poroshenko went on Sky News with these very same images of Russian tanks, as though they were legitimate evidence of Russian preparations for an invasion.

My personal interpretation of the Ukrainian claims is that this is an information campaign to justify and defend Poroshenko’s controversial decision to institute martial law in advance of Presidential elections, where his chances of winning are quite tenuous. This is a cynical, but optimistic view, because the alternative suggests that Ukraine’s armed forces don’t know much about the Russian military, and use dated google earth images to hunt down old T-62 tanks that are neither here or there to anything. Ukrainian force posture doesn’t suggest that they themselves expect a Russian offensive either, and the temporary state of martial law has ended as scheduled, so this seems to be mostly a large information wave with little substance to substantiate it.

However, the Russian Rostov region is seeing a steady build up of forces as part of the formation of the 150th division in the reestablished 8th Combined Arms Army (Southern MD). This will prove a decade long process. Other units that have been announced as far back as early 2015, include the 144th MR Division and 3rd MR Division in 20th Combined Arms Army (Western MD), some shifting of brigades, and steady addition or maneuver regiments to only partially filled divisions in 1st Tank Guards Army headquartered in Moscow. The 144th Division is somewhat lagging here in formation. The 150th division is a 2×2 motor rifle and tank regiment configuration (+2 supporting regiments), which is almost filled now in its maneuver regiments. Supposedly the last motor rifle regiment is being formed as of this month. There are also interesting force structure changes afoot in the Russian VDV, creating much larger air mobile formations, which were partially covered during experiments in Vostok-2018 exercises.

Issue #2 Russian build up in Crimea for an invasion of Kherson

image of the dried up canal.jpeg
The dried up canal on the Russian side of the Crimean border

There is another concern out there, based on sighting of Russian troop movements near the Crimean border with Kherson, that Russia might conduct an offensive operation from Crimea. At least this is ISW’s thesis on the basis of a few troop trucks, some APCs, and artillery being moved towards the border – which is not at all uncommon. Basically, we have a story of an overturned Russian truck as part of a military convoy on the way to the border, with a field kitchen. What’s naturally missing from this equation is a concentration of armor, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery, large volumes of ammunition, etc. moved about on flatbed trucks, i.e. there is no evidence of the sort of hardware one would expect in support of an offensive operation or the formation of battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s borders in Crimea. The Army Corps in Crimea has a dearth of maneuver elements, so units would have to cross into the peninsula via bridge from the rest of the Southern Military District (presumably 58th Army), concentrate, and deploy – which nobody is seeing happen. More than likely Russian troop movements are indicators of preparations for an artillery duel – exchanges of indirect fire that typically escalate in January/February.

Partly responsible for the confusion are two planned force additions to Crimea. First we have the formation of the 171st independent air assault battalion in Crimea, which was announced December 2, 2017. This battalion is technically part of the 7th VDV Air assault division, but will create a permanently based unit in Crimea with air mobility, and add to the ‘elite infantry’ stationed there which can serve as a rapid reaction force. However, VDV units have been rotating through Crimea for years now, so this is less of a force increase and more institutionalizing that which has already been taking place.

171th VDV Regiment
171st Independent Battalion receiving its honorary title, establishing it in Crimea

The second tidbit of information regards the deployment of a 4th S-400 battalion to Dzhankoi in Crimea, which likely completes the rearmament of the 18th and 12th air defense regiments based there (31st air defense division within the 4th Air and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District). The first S-400 battalion was deployed January 2017 in Feodosia, the second January 2018 in Sevastopol, and a third in September 2018 in Yevpatoria. The S-400 replaces the older S-300 systems deployed to Crimea, and is part of a general wave of modernization which prioritized the Southern Military District. Alongside S-400 deployments one can find Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters, and Su-34 bombers steadily replacing Su-24s and older Su-27s in the Russian Aerospace Forces and naval aviation units assigned to the Black Sea Fleet.

S-400 in Crimea.jpg
The 2nd Russian S-400 battalion set deployed to Crimea early this year

There is cause for concern that long term Russia may need to resolve the fresh water crisis in Crimea, but no way to know how this situation will play out in the coming year. In May 2014 Ukraine blocked off the water supply from the Crimea-Dnepr canal that links the Dnepr river to the peninsula. Although Russia was able to quickly build an ‘energy bridge’ to supply power, and Kerch strait bridge officially opened May 2018 to commercial traffic, the water problem remains a potential cause of conflict (Jane’s here briefly summarizes the issue: Ukraine supplied 86% of Crimea’s water, and this summer there was an acute water shortage in about 20% of the peninsula). The fresh water issue is problematic, but I’ve found it to be overly spun as the next “land bridge to Crimea” narrative. The only sort of offensive military operation that makes sense is a thrust to the Dnepr river, which seizes the entire canal, and the southern half of Ukraine’s Kherson region. There is no way to take part of the canal since it is easily blocked at any point south of the river itself. In scope, this is about a 65-70km push, which is equivalent to depth of territory seized in the Donbas region. Kherson may be relatively easy to cut off, but it would require a substantial number of forces to effect this kind of operation and earn Russia an entire new host of problems.

Kherson map.JPG
Basic map with the path of the Dnepr-Crimea canal indicated
Kherson vector
~65km from the Crimean border to the Dnepr river to get to the starting point of the canal (beyond which it cannot be blocked)

Taking Kherson, like taking most any other Ukrainian region, is well within the realm of Russian military capability, but it would mean inheriting a new region which is also dependent on other parts of Ukraine. One of the obvious challenges Russia has faced in taking pieces of Ukraine is that it may seem easy to to dismember a country on a map, but in reality a state is full of integrated pieces that depend on each other for electricity, water, road networks, trade, supply of food, etc. Resolving the fresh water problem in Crimea by taking another region that would itself bring new supply challenges, and while it could probably be done relatively quickly, it would also require a substantial force build up and subsequent deployment. There are no ‘separatist’ or other volunteer battalions ready to take over internal security, man block posts, and create an entirely new line of control with Ukrainian forces. Also, there is the small matter than absent a ‘Kherson People’s Republic’ movement, there are no proxy forces behind which Russia can mask its invasion, and so this would have to be an overt, outright, and bloody business from the very start.

Russia could build up forces in Crimea relatively quickly, combining an air mobile airborne operation with a ground assault, but there would be indications and warnings. Unlike in February-March 2014, the West has a lot of technical and human resources now focused on the Russian problem set. Ground force movements, airborne unit shifts, forward deployment of several battalion tactical groups in Crimea, etc. These are regularly recorded by people, spotters, social media, and traditional news. Right now there is no evidence of such troop movements, though one should not discount a military solution to the water issue in 2019, but the entire scenario remains in the realm of low probability events.

Issue #3 Russian warnings and threats

Finally, Russian press statements by Lavrov, Naryshkin, Maria Zakharova are perhaps the most alarming, since they indicate a readiness of Russian forces to see through an escalation with Ukraine in the coming weeks or months. This of course brings us into the realm of political analysis and out of the world of military analysis. These warnings indicate the expectation of a conflict, with Russia positioning Ukraine as a the provocateur, something that’s become rote in Russian political statements. The messaging is probably not meant for domestic audiences, or Ukrainian audiences, but for the West, which Russian elites believe can heavily influence Ukrainian decision making. As such, they represent a pattern of thinking reminiscent of the run up to the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, reflecting the Russian perception that they can threaten the potential risk of escalation in order to get the United States to lean on what Moscow sees as Washington’s client state.

Russians do see Poroshenko as a provocateur, expecting him to “pull something” in the run up to the election, and engage in military posturing. Like many policymakers in the West, they are subscribers to diversionary war theory, which has little empirical basis, but is very much in vogue with political decision makers. Moscow thinks that Poroshenko needs Western attention on Ukraine, and the cheapest way Ukraine can achieve that is with a narrative that draws attention to the ongoing ‘Russian threat.’ Hence warnings of imminent danger tend to crop up every fall around November-December time. Putting aside the likelihood that Russia itself will execute some of the more dire plans discussed above, there is little incentive for Russia to launch any attack during the election as it would only benefit Poroshenko’s cause, in every scenario. That doesn’t mean it wont happen, because bounded rationality leads to outcomes akin to November 25th, i.e. one should not ignore the likely outcome of a chain of events that results in a conflict spiral between these two actors, but there is no sign that Russia intends to intervene in Ukrainian politics via overt military means.

There is a strong possibility of miscalculation, with January 2019 being different than previous artillery duels and skirmishes that have followed the last major operation in February-March 2015 (Battle of Debaltseve). Ukrainian forces have been slowly gaining ground in the ‘grey zone’ that exists between the two sides respective positions along the line of control in the Donbas. These steady gains are often referenced as the ‘creeping offensive’ to retake lost territory, leading to artillery duels with Russian backed separatists. Separatist units are organized and supported with logistics, technical capabilities like EW, air defense, and other equipment, by a contingent of Russian regulars in Ukraine stationed further behind the line of control. The daily exchanges of indirect fire often flare up after the holiday truce in January, particularly when one side decides to creep into the no man’s land between them, and shift the battle lines.

Russian controlled separatists have also played this game with Ukrainian forces for several years now, making small shifts in the line over the years. It’s what keeps this a hot war rather than a frozen conflict. However, there is a sense that Russia is spoiling for a fight – just one person’s opinion. Russian public statements are designed to paint them as the reasonable party seeking to deter potential Ukrainian adventurism, but in truth, it feels like Moscow is looking to bloody Ukraine at the first available opportunity.

It could be vengeance for Ukraine gaining autocephaly, splitting from the Russian orthodox church, or it could be that Moscow wants to show that it is unconstrained and feels free to use the military toolkit. The November 25th naval skirmish with the Russian FSB border guard service demonstrated that when pressed to make decisions in the moment, the Russian leadership turned what could have been a minor incident into a serious clash, overt, heavy handed, with disproportionate use of force. This is at best personal inference, but it is unlikely that Russia is planning an offensive operation to seize Kherson. It is more probable that Moscow is spoiling for a fight with Ukraine, with the intent of handing Ukraine and by proxy, the United States, a small but politically consequential military defeat.



The Kerch strait naval skirmish

After a few requests I’ve decided to do a quick take on the skirmish outside the Kerch strait between Russian border guards and the Ukrainian navy which has flooded the news.

On November 25th Ukraine’s Navy attempted to execute a planned transfer of two small armored artillery boats (Gryuza-M) and a tugboat from Odessa to Berdyansk in the Sea of Azov (through the Kerch strait). There are already two armored boats there, which were transferred inland, and a supporting ‘command ship’ was towed by the Ukrainian Navy earlier this fall through the strait. That transfer went unmolested though not without some publicity, and quite likely Ukrainians expected the same scenario – a grant of innocent passage an uncomfortably close escort by Russian patrol ships through the strait.

Ukrainian Navy’s first foray to establish a naval base inside the Sea of Azov, towing the command ship in.

towing command ship

On approach they twice radioed the Russian FSB Border Guard of their intention, but did not receive a response confirming passage. Upon arriving at the strait they were told the waterway was closed for security reasons, though no international notice of closure was filed by Russia, i.e. it was closed just for Ukraine’s small trio of boats. Then Russia’s coast guard ordered them to cut engines. A series of maneuvers ensued outside the strait.

One of Russia’s larger patrol ships, the Don, struck Ukraine’s tugboat (which actually appeared to cut engines and sit still)

Don ramming.jpg

Then he struck his flanking partner, the Rubin-class patrol ship Izumrud. Russia’s border guard service didn’t upload any videos of this one, but we will have to imagine what it looked like on the basis of the hull damage.

Someone hit him really high, about the height of the Don patrol ship


Another shot


Russia blocked the bridge passage with a cargo ship. At first media got confusing reports that Ukrainian ships were let through, but actually it was a Russian minesweeper leaving the Sea of Azov. Then a pair of Ka-52 helicopters and two Su-25s appeared over the bridge to provide support.

blocked strait.jpg

After waiting for a boarding party of special forces (type unclear), Russian vessels pursued the Ukrainian ships, and a brief firefight ensued. Russians claim this was in territorial waters, Ukrainians claim it was not. Part of the contest may be rooted in whether or not you consider Crimea to be Russian, because a number of legal considerations stem from that position. Ultimately this was settled via 30mm automatic cannon. Russian patrol ship Izumrud opened fire with its AK-630 on the small armored boat Berdyansk, hitting it with 30mm high explosive rounds judging by the battle damage. The rest of the ships may have surrendered without a fight, and were taken back to Kerch port.

Holes in Berdyansk. Armor casing didn’t seem to hold the HE

damaged Berdyansk.jpg

Ships parked at Kerch

parked Ukrainian ships at Kerch.jpg

Some thoughts –

The Sea of Azov is a shared territorial water governed by a bilateral 2003 agreement and international treaties. Ukraine is entitled to innocent passage for military ships through the strait and does not have to present itself for Russian permission. However, since Russia annexed Crimea and built the bridge (officially opened in May) it has been asserting itself as de facto sovereign over the entirety of the strait, and imposing an informal inspection regime over maritime traffic. This has strangled commercial traffic to Ukraine’s port of Mariupol, and the bridge itself is too short for certain types of ships. In practice that bridge means that Russia can physically block whoever it wants from sailing into the Sea of Azov, and there’s not much Ukraine can do about it (equally skeptical on NATO’s options).

Ukraine likely sought to contest Russian efforts to impose a new status quo, establishing sovereignty over the strait and steadily clinching its grip over the Sea of Azov. Moscow wanted a public demonstration of the true balance of power. The clash on November 25th was brewing for some time – Russia’s Navy transferred ships from the Caspian Flotilla over the summer to the Sea of Azov, and Ukraine’s Navy was slowly doing the same via inland routes.

That said, this incident is the result of Russian adhocracy at its best, from the improvised decision making, to questionable seamanship, salty language on comms, and a lot of ‘who is where and doing what now?’ discussions. It strikes me as a poorly coordinated effort more than some brilliant trap laid for the Ukrainian Navy. Russian forces responded quickly, but they were reacting to the Ukrainian naval group – trying to make it appear a Ukrainian provocation and then improvising from there. One could argue otherwise, but then it begs the question why Russian special forces, helicopters, and aircraft were not already in the air and ready given they could have spent over a day tracking Ukrainian ships in transit.

Subsequently Ukraine’s government has imposed a partial state of martial law (30 days), for 10 provinces. I’m personally skeptical of the military utility or wisdom of Ukraine’s decision on imposing martial law, and side with those who think this is more political than anything else, but that’s another matter altogether. Meanwhile Russia is likely to trade the crews back after using them for PR. According to some blogs there were SBU counter-intelligence officers aboard the ships, which Moscow might hold to trade for its own intelligence personnel down the line, i.e. they will be convicted in some show trial and held for barter.

12/3/2018 small update – the two small armored artillery boats are now gone from Kerch while the tugboat remains

Admiral Kuznetsov’s bad luck strikes again – or how Russia may have lost its largest dry dock in the north

On the night of October 29th, Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only remaining aircraft carrier nearly sank together with the dry dock it was inhabiting while undergoing overhaul and modernization in Roslyakovo (Murmansk region). Although Kuznetsov survived, with some degree of damage (extent unclear), Russia’s largest floating dry dock PD-50 is now completely submerged and likely to result in a total loss. The story is likely to become infamous in the annals of Russia’s notorious shipbuilding and ship repair industry, piling on to a spate of bad news regarding engine production for project 22800 missile corvettes, and delays in modernization timelines.

Kuznetsov is the Russian Navy’s most unlucky ship. The vessel has a reputation for killing carrier aviation, breaking down, lethal accidents on board, and major spills. There is something uncanny about this particular ship’s ability to wreak disaster. In this brief blog entry I will discuss what happened last night in Murmansk, and how Russia lost its largest dry dock in the north, which will undoubtedly result in delays for the overhaul and modernization of the Northern Fleet’s principal surface and submarine combatants.

PD-50 sinking rapidly next to the smaller dry dock PD-82

PD-50 sinking.jpg

Kuznetsov was undergoing overhaul and modernization inside dry dock PD-50 at shipyard #82, owned by Rosneft. This is Russia’s largest dry dock, able to lift 80,000 tons, at 330 x 88 meters (working space 300m x 79m). It is one of the largest if not the largest dry dock in the world, and the only one of its kind in the Russian north, supporting the Northern Fleet. PD-50 was originally built by Sweden for the USSR (transferred in 1980), and often serves as the overhaul or repair shipyard for the Russian Northern Fleet – the dry dock regularly hosts several surface combatants and nuclear powered submarines at the same time.

PD-50 on a good day

PD-50 dry dock

According to the prevailing media narrative, Kuznetsov was being readied for launch when the dry dock lost power from shore, causing it to lose stability, list, and eventually sink. Supposedly wet snow and sleet led to a buildup of ice on the transmission power lines which created problems across Murmansk. There may have been a large power surge, resulting in the emergency shutoff of the pumps maintaining ballast on board PD-50. A different story holds that the power lines were severed resulting in an outage. Either way, the dry dock lost electricity and began to sink while holding the Kuznetsov.

Ilya Kramnik, a long time reporter on the Russian navy at Izvestiya wrote that according to his sources there was no plan to bring the Kuznetsov out of dock that night, and in fact it was a struggle to keep the ship from going down with PD-50. Of course the dry dock should have had its own independent electricity supply via four on board diesel power generators (the sort of thing that would have prevented it from sinking), but in the interest of cost savings and ‘efficiency’ the shipyard saw fit to reduce the crew responsible for power generation and not buy fuel for the generators. The rest of this sordid tale almost writes itself. PD-50 was entirely dependent on Murmansk’s power grid that night and when the power went out it began sinking.

Kuznetsov’s crew was busily trying to save the ship from flooding – the ship was not fully sealed and ready to leave to the dock at the time of the incident. As PD-50 listed heavily, one of the dock’s 50 ton cranes fell onto Kuznetsov’s deck, leaving a hole several meters wide. The carrier was ultimately saved and towed away to shipyard #35, while the dock sank entirely, with perhaps one crewman lost and three injured (as of this morning).

That looks like it may be the crane


A more recent photo shows the 50 ton crane now comfortably resting on the flight deck

Carrier now with 50T crane for air wing

Kuznetsov’s modernization will invariably be delayed. The only other option in Russia’s north is Sevmash shipyard, which is currently occupied by the modernization of Admiral Nakhimov (Kirov-class cruiser), and supposedly not wide enough at the entrance for Kuznetsov. There is an alternative large dry dock in Russia’s far east, PD-41, which services the Pacific Fleet and was originally built by Japan. PD-41 has similar characteristics to PD-50 and may prove Kuznetsov’s only possible alternative once the ship is ready to make the journey.

As of now, the Northern Fleet only has smaller dry docks available which can lift 30,000 tons. That’s still big enough for Kirov-class and Slava-class cruisers, or Oscar II submarines, but PD-50 could potentially hold two large vessels at a time. Russia’s Northern Fleet lost an important asset, which could have knock on effects on ship modernization and overhaul.

This is PD-50 now

PD-50 gone

The Kuznetsov survives, though the carrier is largely a white elephant with no real mission besides sustaining Russia’s fledgling carrier aviation, and projecting status, i.e. it’s primary mission is to exist. Meanwhile, the ship’s track record of bringing bad luck continues unbroken.

Assessing Vostok-2018

I’d like to close out coverage of Vostok 2018 with a brief summary and analysis of the exercise, which was written for Oxford’s CCW Russia Brief, Issue 3. I strongly recommend the issue briefs from Oxford’s changing character of war program, which feature some of the best experts on the Russian armed forces in the field.

Russia’s annual strategic exercises offer an important window into the evolution of the Russian armed forces, their ability to mobilize, deploy, and command large groupings of forces, together with the latest capabilities. The recently held Vostok-2018 (September 11-17), which as the name suggests focused on the Russian Eastern Military District, offered an important deviation from the typically held command-staff strategic exercise which the Russian General Staff organises every September. In a standard exercise, an operational-strategic command (OSK) takes in forces from other districts and fields them in a particular strategic direction, organizing a hypothetical fight together with the General Staff in the theatre of military operations (TVD). But in 2018, Vostok was changed into strategic manoeuvers. Under this framework two military districts, Central and Eastern, divided into opposing forces to conduct manoeuvers in different strategic directions. China’s official involvement in the annual exercises, which is a first, made the event politically significant in Sino-Russian relations, and a mutually agreed upon political signal send by both sides to international observers.

Unlike previous such exercises, Vostok-2010 and 2014, this event represents more of an “in-progress report” for the Russian armed forces. When he was first appointed Chief of General Staff in late 2012, Valery Gerasimov was dismayed with the Russian armed forces inability to move across the country and effectively engage in drills or training events at ranges distant from their home garrisons. The recently reformed military had become a permanent standing force, but it had little experience or credibility in being able to deploy to Russia’s borders in the event of conflict and successfully engage an adversary. The high tempo of snap readiness checks, drills, joint exercises, together with modernization investments under the State Armament Program, were meant to turn the Russian armed forces into a combat credible force, able to effectively deter large scale conventional conflict. Nowhere is this challenge more difficult than the Russian Far East, a vast region that is sparsely populated and lacks much transportation infrastructure.

Vostok-2018 was also as an opportunity for political signalling, featuring a large review of forces and photo opportunities similar to that of Zapad-1981. Russian pronouncements that the exercise would feature 297,000 soldiers – which would have been fully a third of the entire Russian military – was meant to underscore the state’s resilience and undiminished military potential in the face of political and economic pressure from the United States.

In reality, the exercise was rather smaller, probably not exceeding 50,000 participants (this is a guesstimate, use at your own risk) in the actual exercises, with most of the major events taking place at the Tsugol training range. The official numbers given likely represent the total forces on paper from the Central and Eastern Military Districts: often the Russian General Staff will count an entire brigade or division as having participated even when their contribution is only one unit. A large number of units were raised on alert on August 20th, in advance of the exercise, but few had any connection to the actual events. Official statements by Russian commanders also suggest that the exercise was much smaller in reality: Colonel General Alexander Lapin, commander of the Central Military District (CMD), stated that 7,000 troops participated at Tsugol from his district. Together with aviation and airborne units sent, it is unlikely that the CMD’s involvement exceeded 15,000-20,000 soldiers.

The reason for dramatically inflated figures for every Vostok exercise is straightforward: Moscow is unconcerned that announcing fantastical figures would engender a security dilemma in the region. Moreover, political agreements governing military exercises in Europe such as the Vienna Document have no jurisdiction east of the Ural mountains. As such, the Russian leadership can count unit participation however it likes, without stoking NATO fears. At the same time, including China in the exercise was a prudent measure to alleviate any inherent suspicions Beijing might have that these strategic manoeuvers were aimed at them, or a manifestation of Russian security apprehensions. Since most of the exercise events took place in Zabaykalsky Krai, a land-locked region bordering China and Mongolia, this was an important precaution. Moscow’s effort at engaging the Chinese military is quite clever, intended to foster greater partnership, engendering stronger military ties, while at the same time demonstrating to their strategic partners the capability of the Russian armed forces in an effort to bolster coercive credibility.

Vostok featured elements of both contact and non-contact warfare, from a series of attack, defence and flanking manoeuvers by battalion tactical groups, to blunting massed aerospace attacks, and effecting precision strikes against critical infrastructure at operational depths. Going into the exercise Valery Gerasimov said he wanted to see non-standard solutions practiced, code for the Chief of General Staff not wishing to see Russian units arrive at ranges to execute pre-rehearsed manoeuvers, i.e. put on a five-day bit of military theatre for him and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu. It remains unclear whether or not he got what he wanted, but Shoigu indicated this type of exercise might be held every five years, pegged to implementation of the State Armament Program, the implication being that strategic manoeuvers would be used as a form of in-process review and reflection on the current state of the Russian armed forces.

Although every strategic exercise is designed to be a stress test for the Russian armed forces and supporting civilian agencies, Vostok had four principal areas of focus: logistics, mobilization, command and control, and tactical innovation. Emphasis was placed on the logistics, combat service support, and combat engineer components of the Russian armed forces. Command and control of forces in combined arms manoeuver, along with integration with other services remains a prominent feature, as does experimentation with the force structure itself. The Russian military continues to work on integrating recon-strike and recon-fire contours, connecting targeting in real time from drones, soldiers or aircraft, with artillery fires at the tactical level or strike assets distributed among the services. There was also a mobilization component aimed at taking in reservists to help fill out combat service support units and integrating civilian authorities into the exercise under the model that ‘everyone fights’.

Vostok was spread across five combined arms ranges, four air and air defence ranges, and several coastal regions in the Russian Far East. Ground force exercises featured large attacks with artillery and MLRS systems with targeting and battle damage assessments done via drone systems. River fording, bridging, masking of units with smoke and aerosol were all parts of the exercise to simulate the logistical difficulty of getting to the battlefield while under fire. Engineers also setup false targets, inflatable dummy units, practicing various forms of deception on the battlefield. The strategic nuclear component of the exercise involved flights by Tu-95MS bombers, which cut through the U.S. air defence identification zone, earning a free F-22 fighter escort before returning to fire cruise missiles at target ranges in Russia.

Efforts at innovation could be seen in the attempt by the airborne forces to create a new type of air assault detachment, together with an airmobile reserve based on heavy transport helicopters and light vehicles. Colonel General Andrei Serduykov, commander of Russia’s airborne forces, was trying new things this year by assembling battalions from three independent air assault brigades to practice large scale heli-borne attacks, some involved as many as 45 Mi-8 helicopters and two large transport Mi-26 helicopters in the action. The Russian airborne also conducted a sizable parachute drop, using 25 transports to deliver 700 soldiers and 51 BMD infantry fighting vehicles, while specialized light utility units were brought in as a ready reserve for the action. Russia’s Northern Fleet similarly brought a new force mix, including naval infantry and specialized units from its Arctic brigade, some of which conducted a raid in depth across as much as 270km of terrain.

China’s participation included some 3,200 soldiers mounted on tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, APCs and self-propelled artillery, together with 6 aircraft and 24 helicopters. Interactions between Russian and Chinese forces at the tactical level, assuming any serious collaboration even took place, seemed of lower import than the utility of this event as a form of political signalling. China’s Minister of Defence, Wei Fenghe, highlighted the importance of Sino-Russian cooperation at the operational and strategic level, while Shoigu announced that they had agreed to hold exercises regularly in the future. In a subsequent interview, Shoigu referred to the Chinese participants as allies. While it is difficult to interpret Vostok, or any other exercise, as a proof of a budding Sino-Russian entente, it is clear the two countries seek to demonstrate that they do not see each other as a threat.

While Western policymakers typically describe alliance formation as some sort of state-level dating, where relationships are formed based on trust, common values, similar political systems and so on, in reality this has little semblance to the history of how powers actually form alliances. Alliance formation behaviour takes place as a form of balancing behaviour in response to threats, therefore the only logical catalyst for a Sino-Russian entente is the threat posed by the United States, and the extent to which the two countries see their respective challenges as worth the risk and liability of closer cooperation. Having identified both countries as great power competitors in the National Defense Strategy, and practical measures to intensify the confrontation in economic and military domains, Washington has taken important steps to further enhance cooperation between its disparate adversaries.

Vostok-2018 strategic manoeuvers illustrate that while much progress remains to be made in improving the capability and capacity of the Russian armed forces, the military as a whole is increasingly greater than the sum of its parts, and certainly much improved from its relatively raw state in 2012-2013. Meanwhile Russian policy has become rather more deft in managing their ‘strategic partnership’ with China, seeking to leverage military events as part of a boarder effort to slowly and incrementally pull the latter into a balancing entente against the United States.


Vostok 2018 Day 7 (September 17)

Vostok 2018 – conclusion of strategic maneuvers

Russian forces concluded the exercise and began making preparations for the trip back to their respective bases. Vostok 2018 was designed to test the readiness of Russia’s armed forces and supporting civilian infrastructure to move units over large distances, coordination between ground forces and the Navy. It was also another command-staff exercise where officers could gain experience in combined arms maneuver and joint operations in conjunction with other services. Emphasis was placed on quickly forming groupings of forces in the TVD (theater of military operations), moving units East, setting up communications and logistics, etc.

This will be a brief post, as there’s not much to report on, but the announcements made by Russian generals and press on troops returning were of interest. They revealed the likely numbers behind the exercise as quite smaller. Once the event is over I intend to do a brief recap of what we saw that was of interest. Special thanks to colleagues Kate Baughman and Jeff Edmonds who helped put some of the information together behind this coverage of Vostok 2018.

Motor rifle units getting ready to head back

time to go home.jpg

Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu announced that ‘strategic maneuvers,’ or a similar such exercise, might be held every five years. He linked  it to the five-year implementation of the State Armament Program. The connection is somewhat difficult to understand, since there’s no visible linkage to the SAP (GPV 2018-2027). It may be some internal benchmark being established for performance of new equipment, or simply an idea being pitched to do ‘strategic maneuvers’ every five years. Shoigu also suggested that the MoD would release a performance assessment from the exercise sometime in October.

VKS Aerospace Forces – Russian and Chinese aviation has begun returning to their home airbases. Russian forces list  of aircraft used includes Tu-95MS, Tu-22M3, Il-76, An-12, An-26, Su-35S, Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-24M, Su-25, Mig-31BM + Ka-52, Mi-24, Mi-26, Mi-8 helicopter variants. Chinese forces brought six JH-7A, and an assortment of helicopters including Mi-171, Z-9, Z-19.

Central MD – General-Lieutenant Alexander Lapin, commander of Central MD, gave out medals to 50 officers for their performance during Vostok. During the ceremony he announced that Central MD successfully moved 7,000 troops to Tsugol range for the exercise. Given the exercise consisted of Central and Eastern MD, if Central only contributed about 7,000 in ground forces (this is two brigades or one division’s worth of soldiers), it raises questions as to who brought the other 293,000 to this event – or to put another way, Vostok was clearly several times smaller in scope than advertised.

Here is a small table showing some of the fantastical official figures reported by Russia’s MoD for different exercises over the years. Note Zapad is always tiny because of Vienna Document filing requirements, and Vostok is always outrageously large.

exercise table


Other news include a communications brigade belonging to 2nd CAA returning home from Tsugol training range. This unit, consisting of ~1000 soldiers, was responsible for providing encrypted communications during the exercise. The 2nd CAA also fielded about 2000 motor riflemen, with T-72B3 tanks, BMP-2s, BM-21, and other equipment – also coming back from Tsugol.

Note: Southern MD, not to be outdone, is planning to hold an entire series of 30 battalion tactical trainings (BTU) – which seems to be something Col General Alexander Dvornikov is instituting. Exercises will last through October 31st, emphasizing combined arms maneuver, and inter service coordination. Supposedly 45,000 troops will be involved in these drills, the goal of which will be to test all of the BTGs that Southern MD can field. Gen Dvornkikov, who heads Southern MD, has emphasized recon-strike + recon fire contours, and ‘lessons from Syria’ throughout comments and quotes on events taking place in Southern MD (and he’s got comments for almost every press release).

Eastern MD – A battalion tactical group of motor riflemen from the 41st CAA, based near Keremovo Oblast, is heading home. This unit had 1000 soldiers and ~300 pieces of equipment, including BTR-82A APCs and T-72B3 tanks. Again, a BTG or two from 41st CAA sounds about right in terms of participation.


Northern Fleet – A surface action group led by Udaloy-class Vice-Admiral Kulakov conducted another amphibious landing exercise near the port Egvekinot on Chukotka. The Arctic brigade detachment they had unloaded earlier, which had conducted a land march to the port, served as an opposing force for Russian naval infantry. Recall the Arctic units made a 270km raid inland and had met up with the fleet at a different point on the Pacific coast. Two LSTs, together with Ka-27 helicopters, unloaded several units of naval infantry on BTR-80s onto the beach. The naval infantry and Arctic brigade units fought each other, simulating amphibious assault and coastal defense. Those unfamiliar with this popular destination for amphibious landings can inspect the map below.


naval infantry 2.JPG

Naval infantry Chukotka 2.JPG

Vostok 2018 Days 5-6 (September 15-16)

Vostok 2018 Days 5 and 6

The weekend was relatively quiet. Comparably few activities took place as the forces involved were either taking a break, or perhaps there was a media blackout compared to the information flowing about the first several days. For a brief period the MoD main website was down, which was unusual. However, other news sources which typically cover the exercises reflected a dearth of information for September 15-16. I’ve decided to group the events of both days into one post here. The main exercises over the weekend included another series of bombing raids by Russian aerospace forces, a motor rifle battalion assault at Tsugol, complex river crossing exercises supported by engineer and CBRN troops, and two naval exercises held by the Northern and Pacific Fleets.

VKS Aerospace Forces – Russian Tu-22M3s conducted another series of air raids at a training range in Zabaikal, practicing bombing runs against various targets simulating an enemy air base. It reads like this was another unguided bombing exercise, dropping FAB-500s and 250s. The precision guided munitions tend to be reserved for Syria, so they tend not to waste them on exercises. Ten air crews were involved in the event, though unclear if they all had their own individual platforms, i.e. 10 bombers, or were rotated through a smaller number of aircraft.


Meanwhile Russian Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters took on the role of incoming enemy fighters. They approached the integrated air defenses setup by Eastern MD, and not did not respond to ground control requests for identification. Mig-31BM and Su-35s fighters were scrambled to intercept, simulating air combat at different ranges, including short range dog fighting. The Su-30SMs were defeated by Eastern MD’s air superiority fighters.

Eastern MD – There was another motor rifle and armored assault at Tsugol, with T-62s setup as targets representing the opposing force. Several companies of T-72B1 tanks, in conjunction with BMP-2s conducted an attack across the range.

Motor rifle and armored assault.JPG

Meanwhile Russian military police units, mounted on Typhoon vehicles, detected and captured  a group of infiltrators who sought to gain access to the training range.


CBRN units setup smoke and aerosol cover for a river crossing exercise, where T-72 tanks forded the river with snorkels, while other vehicles were transported via specialized amphibious carriers. Engineer and sapper units established a pontoon bridge for tanks and BMPs to drive over. The exercise seems based around a motor rifle battalion, with helicopter support, effecting a river crossing both via bridge and in shallow places with its own means.

Units positioned preparing to cross.JPG

pontoon bridge.JPG

Other exercises of note: Russia’s Ministry of Emergencies held a joint exercise with Chinese counterparts, simulating a ship collision at a bridge being constructed across the Amur River. The exercise consisted of a Chinese passenger ship colliding with a Russian ship working on the bridge. Both sides worked together to put out a fire on the Chinese ship, evacuate passengers, and rescue others from the water. Russian Be-200 firefighting aircraft and Mi-8s  belonging to the Ministry were involved, with about 300 people all together engaged in this exercise. I found the event interesting simply because it reflects another level of cooperation between Russian and Chinese ministries along the border outside of the military dimension.

The Baltic Fleet has also been busy, though their activities doubtfully have anything to do with Vostok 2018. About 25 ships, 30 aircraft, helicopters, drones, and 50 pieces of equipment were involved in conducting an amphibious landing at Khmelevka. Russian Su-24 + Su-30SM fixed wing aircraft and Mi-24 helicopters conducted a strike against enemy positions, so that naval infantry units could then land and seize the beach. Ships involved included LSTs Aleksandr Shabalin, Korolev, Minsk, three smaller landing boats from project 21820, and support by three project 20380 corvettes (Stereguschiy). The landing force consisted of about 30 BTR-82A, which is consistent with what about 3 LSTs can carry, though at the same time they also air lifted several naval infantry units behind enemy lines – presumably via Ka-27 helicopters which is typically how these forces effect an amphibious assault.

Northern Fleet – The Northern Fleet ran an anti-submarine warfare exercise, with its principal combatant Vice Admiral Kulakov (Udaloy-class) leading the submarine hunt. Their scenario involved using different systems to hunt for the submarine, such as onboard sonar and the ship’s Ka-27PL helicopter. Kulakov practiced torpedo and depth charge attacks, along with evading torpedo attacks fired by the opposing submarine.

Ka-27 deploying dipping sonar

dipping sonar.JPG

Pacific Fleet – Naval Infantry conducted an assault to enable a larger amphibious force to land near the Klerk training range on Primoriye. This is an interesting exercise in that they were working together VKS Aerospace Forces, who supported their attack, along with ships from the Pacific Fleet, combat aviation, artillery, sappers, and air defense units. Supposedly the next phase of this exercise will involve an air assault brigade of VDV Airborne conducting a similar type of attack, though it seems things are winding down. The Eastern MD is already looking to an upcoming joint exercise with Mongolian troops under a different title.

Some additional pictures of note:

CBRN units treating tanks

treating tanks.JPG

Tank sanitation checkpoint

sanitizing T-72s.JPG

T-72 snorkeling

Loch Ness T-72.JPG


Vostok 2018 Day 4 (September 14)

Vostok Day 4

Most of the exercises are taking place at Tsugol and Telemba, but there was word today of various live fire events from a few of the other ranges. Elements of 5th CAA are at Bikinskiy, and the air force is doing most of its bombing runs at Mukhor-Kondui. More word from the two fleets, the Northern Fleet is exercising in the Bering Sea, while the Pacific Fleet has launched a surface action group together with support ships and a number of smaller vessels. Less news from the airborne on this day, but some interesting simulations among air defense forces, CBRN troops, and engineer units. Across the ranges where most of the forces are staged the day was taken up by artillery and MLRS fires, together with combat maneuvers by motor rifle battalions.

VKS Aerospace Forces – At Tusgol, Russia employed A-50U (AWACS system) in conjunction with Mig-31BM, Su-35S, and Su-30SMs conducting combat air patrols and simulating intercepts. Meanwhile at Mukhor-Kondui, another  range with targets for the air force, Russia’s air force conducted several air strikes with mostly unguided munitions. Including about 30 aircraft consisting of Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-24M, and Su-25s. Their target was a column of enemy armor and artillery on the march. Coordinates and targeting relayed by Su-24MP.

Su-25s about to fire unguided rockets (Mukhor-Kondui)


Followed by bombing passes from Su-30SM and Su-24 bombers


Some word on the earlier air strike with cruise missiles, IZ reported it as 4xTu-95MS and 6xTu-22M3 participating. The Tu-95MS flight in the first two days of the exercise clearly cut through the Alaska air identification zone for the United States, as F-22s were sent up to greet them. The need for air refueling during this flight now makes sense since they seemingly made a large lap before firing missiles at the target range.

F-22 and Tu-95MS.JPG

VDV Airborne – Seems they conducted an airborne drop of one battalion, together with a heliborne assault with soldiers repelling. I honestly can’t say if this took place on the 14th, or if the photos are from the 13th. Part of the problem is some nice people seem to have taken down the Russian MoD website making it a bit difficult to compare announcements and images from the two days.

airborne repelling.jpg

Eastern MD – CBRN troops simulated an emergency chemical cleanup whereby several railcars carrying dangerous/toxic chemicals spilled their load, presumably onto the roadway and the surrounding area. Supposedly about 1,500 CBRN troops, and 300 pieces of equipment are taking part in the exercises, using RHM-6 chemical detector systems, and RPM-2 radiological detectors. Engineer units also simulated a natural and/or man-made disaster, testing their ability to manage flooding, evacuation of the local population, dealing with unexploded ordnance, etc. About 350 soldiers listed for this one, with 80 pieces of equipment including excavators, cranes, floating transports, etc.

At Telemba range, Col Tikhonov, commander of 76th Air Defense division, highlighted the use of air defense targets designed to simulate small radar profiles, i.e. low observation aircraft and cruise missiles. Not only did they use the typical dummy missiles, and conventional targets, but they wanted to replicate a large scale aerospace attack with cruise missiles. The addition of targets with small radar cross sections seems new  compared to previous exercises.

At Tsugol there was a sizable artillery and MLRS live fire exercise, different types of self-propelled and towed artillery involved, together with BM-21 and BM-27 MLRS.

2s3 firing.jpg

Tsugol BM-27 firing.JPG

At Bikinskyi range, in Khabarovsk, a motor rifle unit of the 5th CAA stopped an advancing opposing force. Air defense units assigned to them, including ZSU-23-4 shilka, and Igla manpads, were fired to simulate defending against enemy air power. Artillery units with BM-21 Grad were similarly engaged in supporting the defending motor rifle formation. All together at this range they are listing 200 pieces of equipment, and 1700 troops. The number suggests that this is a battalion tactical group, with short range air defense and MLRS units assigned to it.

Elements of 5th CAA


This is rather small by the way, and I suspect at the end of all the announcements, if we add up all the troops listed as participating at the individual ranges over the period of these eight days, we’re going to have a hard time coming up not only with 300,000 but probably with anything approaching 50,000-70,000. Recalling we have 5 combined arms ranges, 4 air defense ranges, and two gulfs as the overall area of the exercise.

tanks at Tsugol.jpg

As an aside, there are several exercises, annual certification checks, and live fire drills going on in other military districts. At the same time, the Southern MD is hosting a sizable exercise with about 5,000 troops, including air defense, artillery, missile, and air force units. About 500 pieces of artillery, MLRS, listed, including BM-21, BM-27, BM-30, Tulpan 240mm mortar, Iskander-M, and several ships participating. About 20 fixed and rotary wing aviation involved in this exercise. Black Sea Fleet coastal defense forces (ground forces part of its army corps) held several smaller exercises of their own, simulating defense against diversionary forces attacking its bases. Dvornikov is placing emphasis on working out the recon-strike contour, command and control across his district for employing long range firepower, i.e. cruise missiles and the like at operational ranges. It seems he’s trying to bring experience from the Syrian war to the district.

Pacific Fleet – Several ships from the fleet escorted a Russian squadron near the Sea of Okhotsk. Varyag (Slava-class guided missile cruiser), together with Bystruy (Sov destroyer), two  Udaloy class large anti-submarine warfare ships and other smaller vessels served as escorts to Irtysh, a hospital ship, and several LSTs. The SAG seems to consist of 2x Udaloy, 1x Sov, and 1xSlava-class with a few support ships and LSTs. The exercise involved changing formation, arraying the surface action group for air defense, signaling, C2, and anti-submarine warfare. Ka-27 helicopters carried onboard the larger combatants also participated in the exercise. All together about 15-20 ships from the Pacific Fleet are listed for this exercise. I say 15-20 because Russian MoD announcements can’t agree whether it was 15 or 20, depending on which one you read.

Pacific SAG

Pacific Fleet.JPG

Northern Fleet – Elements of the Northern Fleet’s specialized Arctic brigade, which were dropped off two days ago on Chukotka, marched from their landing point to the Pacific coastline, i.e. they drove 270km on their articulated DT-10P vehicles over the course of two days. Along the way they practiced raiding enemy formations, some live fire drills, etc. This is an interesting exercise, noting that the small surface action group sent by the Northern Fleet has been traveling since August 8th, conducting multiple landings with both naval infantry and the arctic brigade detachment. The rest of the surface action group spent this day in the Bering Sea, practicing search and rescue operations. Their mission was to aid a ship in distress along the northern sea route. Kulakov (Udaloy-class) conducted search operations with its Ka-27 onboard helicopter, which then practiced evacuating individuals from the supposed vessel, together with a rescue party launched from the ship on small high speed boats. Meanwhile their large tug, Pamir, and the diesel-electric ice breaker Ilya Muromets, practiced firefighting at sea.

Kulakov launching Ka-27


Ilya Muromets firefighting together with the large ocean going tug


I would note that today the Russian MoD website appears to be down, and I would bet a good deal of money that it is likely due to a DDOS attack.

Some additional photos of note:

Russian and PLA forces coordinating something

lost in translation

The display signs at Tsugol – this seems to be the Chinese contingent section

best friends forever.jpg