Zapad appeared largely over and things were dying down across training ranges. There was a military police exercise at Brest, and several live fire exercises for principal surface combatants of Russia’s Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea. Otherwise, most units were preparing for closing ceremonies and returning home on the 16th.
At Brest (Belarus)
Belarus and Russian military police conducted an exercise in joint defense against a diversionary group attempting to break through to their camp, detaining opposing forces, and providing medical support to wounded. It looked a bit like a capture the flag exercise with blanks, smoke grenades and flares. The enemy diversionary group planted some kind of black jihadist flag in the MP camp and then a firefight broke out. Medical detachments got to use their Linza vehicle, based on the Typhoon-K.
A surface action group composed of Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy and Slava-class guided missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov were out in the Barents to conduct a live fire exercise with anti-ship missiles. Their target was an opposing amphibious landing group. The two ships fired P-700 Granit (SS-N-19) and P- 1000 Vulkan (SS-N-12) missiles respectively at a target imitating enemy ships. This appears to be the final exercise for these cruisers in the Barents and they’re returning to port.
The naval contingent with Udaloy-class Severomorsk has left port Dudinka where they conducted a port call, and cultural activities, along with various ship defense and counter-saboteur exercises. They’re not heading home though, further into the eastern Arctic, to New Siberian Islands via the Laptev Sea.
Looks like Russian units are headed back to base. A closing ceremony was held 230th Obuz-Lesnovsky Combined-Arms training ground in Belarus.
The Alexandrov Ensemble also performed a concert for Russian and Belarusian troops involved in the exercise.
Russian forces at Mulino also held a closing ceremony involving foreign contingents who participated as part of the coalition.
Seems the Russian military is headed back to their bases, bunch of reports and videos of vehicles loading onto rail wagons and aircraft headed back.
Northern Fleet ships are returning to port, including the Oscar-II SSGN (K-266 Orel and Delta IV K-51 Verkhoturye) which had originally set sail on the 11th. 14th Army Corps units are returning to base from their various exercises. A total of 8000 participants were involved in Northern Fleet activities during this event, with more than 800 pieces of equipment. They conducted a total of 6 missile launches, including P-700 Granit, P-1000 Vulkan, P-270 Moskit, Kh-35 by Bal CDCM, and P-800 by Bastion-P.
First Guards Tank Army units are heading back from Mulino, they had a few more drills on the way back, but are definitely home in time to vote in the Duma elections… Iskander-M units at Mulino are also returning to Kursk, thus confirming it was the 448th Missile Brigade of the 20th CAA, that was involved in Zapad missile strikes at that training range.
Russian units (logistics, engineering and combat and combat support troops) are packing and are heading to their permanent bases. There is no time to rest, though. On the way home, they will practice air defense operations, along with defending against sabotage and reconnaissance groups.
The head of the Main Directorate for Military Police, Colonel General Sergei Kuralenko, remarked that during the exercise MPs fulfilled 140 training-combat tasks, and provided support for 128 convoys/columns. About 2,500 military police took place in Zapad and 600 pieces of automotive equipment. These exercises involve quite a few MP units, and military auto inspection (VAI) is also part of military police. Consequently, the 2500 number is not unrealistic, but fairly reasonable given the different roles MPs play at these exercises.
Thanks to Konrad Muzyka for working on this with me like we did for Kavkaz-2020. It’s been fun covering Zapad, though a busy week and I had to take a break in the middle of it.
This day featured a smaller version of the earlier regional grouping of forces exercise (featured September 12) being played out Obuz-Lesnovsky, this time with foreign attaches watching the action. Large grouping of artillery, an armored counterattack, tactical and army aviation support. At Brest there was a large combined paradrop of Russian-Belarusian paratroopers (76th DIV) and equipment. Ashuluk featured a sizable air defense exercise, repelling a massed aerospace attack with electronic and life fire missile launches. Kaliningrad training ranges proved quite busy, there was a paradrop at Pravdisnky and a coastal defense exercise featuring the 336th Naval Infantry brigade at Khmelevka. It looks like the VDV’s 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade also made an interesting paradrop at Mulino, though otherwise the range was quiet compared to the previous day’s action.
There was yet another paradrop over the Bretsky training range, again the 76th Air Assault Division. According to the Belarusian MoD, 20 Il-76MDs delivered 400 Russian and Belarusian paratroopers with 39 pieces of equipment (a battalion worth of BMD-4Ms). They flew from Kresti, about 1000km in total, and dropped from 600m using D-10 parachutes. Belarusians were loaded at the Machulishchi airfield near Minsk, and joined the Russian transport fleet enroute to Brest, dropping with D-6 parachutes. Once the force landed, they seized initial defensive lines. Their objective was to block three bridges, preventing enemy forces from disrupting the deployment of the main Russian-Belarusian forces. Essentially they closed of ground lines of communications along an advance.
174th “Domanovsky” Air and Air Defense Forces Training Ground
A security unit from the 483rd Air & Air Defense Force Protection and Maintenance Battalion was attacked as OPFOR sought to destroy a target/facility the unit was guarding. However, Belarusians brought in armored vehicles and repelled the attack with heavy machine guns. The enemy then regrouped and sought a different way in, used UAVs to recce the area. The UAV was destroyed by a machine gun fire. Yet, the OPFOR was determined to relaunch the attack. Belarusian forces repelled the second attack, useing machine guns and grenade launchers to destroy everything that was left of OPFOR.
An Osa-AKM-equipped battalion from the 147th Air Defense Regiment was joined by a S-300PS battalion from the 377th Air Defense Regiment in engaging enemy aircraft, helicopters, and UAVs. Emphasis on camouflaging firing positions, and securing the air defense units’ equipment.
Obuz-Lesnovsky, 230th Combined Arms Training Range
At Obuz-Lesnovsky foreign defense and military attaches observed exercises by Russia’s 1st GTA and Belarusian units at the training range. Some personnel from CSTO and SCO member states were also present. A delegation of the CIS executive committee and the Secretariat of the Council of CIS Defense Ministers and a delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross were invited as well.
Observers witnessed a combined-arms operation. The show was intended to demonstrate what the regional grouping of forces could do in action. First, Belarusian units stopped the forward detachments of an opposing force, which gave time for the main force to prepare defensive lines. Then a ‘joint’ artillery group (army self-propelled artillery, MLRS, and VDV artillery units) destroyed enemy artillery and command posts. This appears to consistent with other scenarios where Russian artillery attempts to attain artillery superiority, and induce disorganization, by going after enemy fire positions and C2. The enemy tried to use aviation, but this too was repelled by air defense systems. A “mixed tactical group for combating UAVs” was formed, including air defense, EW, and NCB troops (recall NCB troops have MLRS and other capabilities).
Artillery component seemed to involve over 100 weapon systems including 2S5 Giatsint-S self-propelled artillery, 2S1 Gvozdika, BM-21 Grad 122mm MLRS and BM-27 Uragan 220mm MLRSs, 2S19 MSTA-S SPA. More than 1000 salvos were launched hitting 200 targets.
Rotary aviation provided cover for defensive positions, Mi-24s and Ka-52s. Meanwhile a flight of 4x Su-34 conducted SEAD missions, though with high explosive fragmentation bombs. Have yet to read of a single SEAD exercise where actual anti-radiation missiles are used. After repelling the enemy’s attack, the joint Russia-Belarusian force launched a counterattack with T-72B3s and T-80U (also T-72B for Belarus), together with supporting artillery, and army aviation. In the end, they were able to restore their positions, retake lost ground from OPFOR, while substantially attriting the enemy force.
During Zapad, Russians tested a better means for transport and delivery of fuel, namely a new generation of fuel trucks, the ATZ-12-10-63501 fuel tankers. This vehicle is on a 9×9 chassis of Kamaz-63501 truck, with a capacity of 12,000 liters, and ability to fuel 10 vehicles simultaneously. Special polymer self-sealing coating prevents leaks even if damaged by small arms fire. There were also the newer ATs-14-63501 fuel tankers. Reportedly, logistics personnel using these vehicles can fill up a tank company with fuel within 10-15 minutes.
In general while tanks are more exciting, logistics are often the more important conversation.
Units from a special purpose VDV brigade, which has to be 45th, were deployed to correct aviation strikes (tactical air control role?), and reconnoitering the landing zone for follow on forces in advance of an airborne assault. They dropped using special parachutes Stayer, as part of the Yunker-O system ofor high-altitude paradrops. The groups flew in from Zhitovo in Ryazan and parachuted from Il-76MDs at about 8,000 meters. After they landed, additional aircraft flew in with cargo using PGS-1500 and UPGS-250 parachute systems, dropping at about 1500m: heavy weapons, ammunition, reconnaissance and destruction equipment, food. Interestingly, an An-26 then delivered forward air observers using Dalnolet and Tandem-400S systems. The Tandem system is for specialists who have no parachute training, basically they jump in tandem with a paratrooper, so these air controllers don’t have parachute certification. Equipment landed using a specialized parachute-cargo system that is equipped with GLONASS global positioning. It can be steered in any direction, or land in self-navigating mode at the desired location. In addition, they have developed a way to paradrop 82mm mortars to these units.
Also, a Silok-01 radio-suppression system was deployed to protect a command post against makeshift/commercial drones, employing improvised explosive devices. The system blocked GPS navigation, control, and data transmission to/from the drones in question. Also, R-330Zh Zhitel radio jamming was employed, although few details offered.
At Ashuluk – Russian forces created a unified air defense system, including means to detect and repel an air attack, defend Russian forces, and operate everything from a single center. Press releases generally emphasize air defense operating in a unified information space, and simulating a contested environment with opponent’s employing EW. There seemed to be a large aerospace attack/air defense exercise taking place, simulating defense against a massed missile-aviation strike (MRAU). Approximately 60 air targets generated. Su-35 and Mig-31BM units trained in being directed to enemy air targets (doesn’t say if it was via AWACS or ground control). Air defense units conducted both electronic launches and live fire missile launches against aerial targets and simulated missiles.
Tu-95MS strategic bombers conducted a test of the Western MD’s air defense system. They practiced penetrating air defense, and destroying ground-based air defense systems, along with navigation without visual orientation. This is a pretty odd exercise description given what the Tu-95MS’ role is, and its certainly not penetrating air defense or destroying ground-based AD.
Elements of the 76th Air Assault Division conducted a paradrop over Pravdinsky training range. Around 300 personnel and several BMD-2KU vehicles were involved. Only 10 Il-76s MDs were used. The Baltic Fleet’s Su-27s achieved air superiority, which allowed for military transport aviation to fly in. Su-24s also bombed OPFOR’s ground forces before the landing party arrived. Once on the ground, paras seized the bridgehead and defended it from OPFOR’s attacks, destroying OPFOR’s forward detachments.
In addition, at Dobrovolskiy, Su-24s and Su-30SMs conducted “precision” strikes (doubtful) against enemy command posts, and forces. Also looks like there was a SEAD component to this exercise. Bomb strikes conducted at altitudes from 200m to 2000m.
Khmelevka, Kaliningrad Oblast
At Khmelevka the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade assault detachments and supporting artillery engaged OPFOR’s amphibious force using 2S9 Nona 120 mm gun-mortar systems and BTR-82A APCs. This exercise was part of a larger drill practiced that day at Khmelevka with overall 1000 participants. Naval infantry units were raised on alert, deployed to the beach where an enemy amphibious attack was inbound, prepared defense positions and fired on targets imitating landing craft.
Khmelevka also featured an interesting EW exercise. Using drones, Leer-3 electronic warfare units (these systems use Orlan-10 drones), worked in conjunction with Zhitel, Borisoglebsk-1, and Lava-RP. They practiced jamming enemy radio-controlled explosives (maybe IEDs?), electronic support missions which involve detecting emitting targets, active jamming of enemy forward air controllers, and precision guided weapons. 100 troops involved with 20 pieces of specialized equipment. No photos so we have to imagine all the precision guided weapons they were able to jam.
Naval forces held an air defense exercise involving 2x Steregushchiy-class corvettes Stoikiy and Steregushchiy, and Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudry. The surface action group detected an incoming enemy air attack represented by Su-24s and Ka-27s belonging to the Baltic Fleet’s naval aviation component. Ships defended themselves with EW, also employing A-190 main gun and AK-630 CIWS guns. They then shifted to artillery fire against different targets at sea and land targets imitating coastal defenses.
Seems there was another fleet defense exercise in Baltiysk for special purpose PDSS units. PDSS prevented diversionary forces from penetrating the Baltic Fleet base during a loading operation. They practiced patrolling in speedboats along Kaliningrad’s maritime channel, deploying divers, and UUVs.
The 14th Army Corps continued their multi-day battle with enemy forces engaged in an amphibious assault on the Kola Peninsula. This time the training was at a range in the Kandalaksha region south of Murmansk, i.e. more on the White Sea coast which tells us it was the 80th Arctic Motor Rifle Brigade whereas the earlier training was by the 200th MRB. The exercise featured a massed artillery strike against opposing forces with 2s1 Gvozdika and mortars, practicing maneuver defense, laying ambushes, and camouflaging equipment. Units fired at targets at a range of 100m-3000m with ATGMs, and various RPGs.
Meanwhile the rest of the corps were on the offensive near Pechenga, and on the Sredniy and Rybachy peninsulas. A total of 3,000 troops are involved and 500 pieces of equipment. This describes the overall set of exercises taking place, emphasis placed on jointness, ground force coordination with air power. The counteroffensive phase is the final part of the exercise, earlier they trained in positional and maneuver defense at Pechenga and Kandalaksha, along with coastal defense against an amphibious landing at Sredniy.
Bastion-P Coastal Defense Cruise Missile batteries based on the island of Alexandra Land (Franz Josef Land archipelago), conducted launches against an enemy surface action group. Strike conducted against a target at sea, maximum effective range. Target coordinates relayed by the AdmiralGorshkov-class frigate, Admiral Kasatonov. Kasatonov was doing its own training in targeting surface combatants, but with simulated electronic launches. The target struck was being observed by Il-38, and the strike confirmed by the aircraft. Here is the twist, the Bastion-P battery did not belong to the Northern Fleet, it was a Baltic Fleet coastal defense unit that was delivered to Alexandra Land some weeks ago in advance of this exercise.
Special thanks to Konrad Muzyka for helping me put some of these writeups together.
This day featured the main event at Mulino, a large-scale iteration of maneuver defense by a coalition grouping of forces, luring the opposing force into prepared fire cauldrons, degrading them, counterattacking with massed fires and strike systems through the depth of their lines, and then conducting a counteroffensive. The exercise featured the 31st Air Assault Brigade, extensive air support and bombing from VKS Aerospace Forces, attack helicopters, drone strikes, large concentrations of supporting artillery (SPA and MLRS), extensive minewarfare, and use of combat engineer-sapper units. At other ranges there were notable paradrops, including a night drop by the VDV’s 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade. Three Iskander-M launches took place at different ranges, SRBM and cruise missiles fired. Meanwhile the Northern Fleet continued its battle against an unidentified force of marines which had made an amphibious landing on Kola Peninsula.
Special thanks to Konrad Muzyka for helping put together a number of the events and activities here, and as a second set of eyes in case I miss something.
The 106th VDV Division which had a battalion packed and ready to drop for a few days now finally deployed. Best guess it was 137th Airborne Regiment. The opposing force was deploying reserves into the fight, and coalition command decided to call upon operational-tactical airborne. This seems to be the current designation for parachute regiments. They dropped at two different sites near Zhitovo with 300 paratroopers and 30 BMD-4M infantry fighting vehicles, aboard 21 x Il-76MD transport aircraft (together with 20 Indian paratroopers). Paradrop took place at about 800-1100 meters, with air cover provided by Su-35S.
A battalion from the 104th Air Assault Regiment of the 76th Airborne Division conducted maneuver defense operations at the training ground. An OPFOR of 1500 attacked Russian positions, which were being defended by an airborne BTG. They were initially met by a BMD-4M equipped air assault platoon. The subunit moved back to prepared lines, luring OPFOR into an ambush. The OPFOR stood no chance against BMD-4Ms and the 2S25 Sprut self-propelled tank destroyer/light tank. An air defense component of the exercise included 9K333 Verba engaging aerial targets.
At Mulino, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast – Main Event
The overall scheme for events at Mulino involves a coalition grouping of forces holding a defensive line against an enemy offensive which had pushed 80km into coalition territory, and then mounting a large counteroffensive. This was another case of maneuver defense, and a ‘perforating’ attack with fires against the enemy forces at a tactical-operational level. In the first phase of the event, they goal was to pull the OPFOR’s initial echelons into an operational envelopment, and deflect their air attack. Then deploy airborne units and commit mobile reserves. In the second phase, the Northern Coalition attempted to disrupt the opponent’s system of command and control (disorganize), attain superiority in fires, and reduce their combat potential via a concentrated strike across the entire operational depth of their forces – using recon-fire and recon-strike complexes (its contours or loops, not complexes, whoever wrote this is using older terms). In phase three, the Russian-led coalition’s goal was to crush OPFOR, deploying tactical and tactical-operational airborne units, bypassing parts of their force, and seizing populated sectors. The exercise also tested elements of combat service support and logistical elements, resupplying the force with ammunition, maintenance, etc.
Putin was there, looking at the event through a pair of binoculars while Gerasimov explained things. In Zapad-2017 he was there on the 5th day, like during most strategic command-staff exercises, but this time they had the main event earlier. Notably they keep him sequestered due to covid, forcing everyone to quarantine well in advance, so spotting him in a command center filled with people is actually a rare sight these days.
Belarusian T-72B tank units (a reinforced armored company) practiced maneuver defense, together with Russian motor rifle detachments, forcing the opposing force to suffer attrition and attack with their main body of forces in an unfavorable direction. This tactical scenario has been repeated several times in Zapad now, armored forces retreating from forward defense positions under the cover of smokescreens to avoid being decisively engaged, only to take up a new defensive line. This tactic is called ‘rolling.’ Their goal is to lure the opponent into a fire cauldron (or pocket), which is also heavily mined. The fire pocket is a prepared sector, where artillery and other units can decimate an opposing force from multiple directions with direct and indirect fires, while minelayers block mobility. This exercise featured mining to block the opponent’s advance using GMZ-3 minelayers, and heliborne mining via Mi-8MT. There’s mention of a different type of formation employed, mobile tactical groups, which sounded just like BTGs, except these were reinforced by BMPT Terminator units. These were supported by mine clearing vehicles and TOS-1A MLRS.
The 31st Air Assault Brigade together with a Belarusian tank battalion tactical group (19th Mechanized Brigade), as part of a joint operation. The airborne operation is referenced as 31st deploying a “mobile strike echelon.” Objective: prevent breakthrough by opposing coalition forces, fill the gaps or reinforce key areas that might be overrun. This time they deployed 12 Mi-8AMTSh transport helicopters (although in total airborne operations at Mulino involved 32 Mi-8 variants), with cover from 14 Mi-24, Mi-28N, Ka-52 attack helicopters. They brought in Sarmat-2 ground mobility vehicles so that forces could rapidly seize key positions, and as has become commonplace D-30 122mm howitzers for artillery support. Helicopters airlifted Sarmat-2 light ground mobility vehicles, whose attack helped disrupt opposing forces. These light units were working in conjunction with an air assault battalion mounted on BMD-4Ms, and a Belarusian tank BTG fielding T-72B1s.
Russian (31st) and Kazakhstani (35th Air Assault Brigade) forces had a separate training exercise in an urban environment. After attacking the enemy with 4x Sarmat vehicles and attack helicopters, they assaulted buildings, engaging in urban combat. Assault-engineer units created entrances through walls, demined buildings, and prepared it to be demolished. A battery of D-30 towed 122mm howitzers, brought in by the Mi-8s, provided support for this event. Also they had 82mm mortars, and two units with Kornet ATGMs. This event was a planned battle in the city, featuring about 300 paratroopers from Russia and Kazakhstan, with 10 helicopters supporting.
Russian Aerospace Forces executed a massed aviation strike against enemy forces at Mulino, involving more than 60 aircraft. Su-24MR reconnaissance, 12x Su-25SM3 attack, 16x Su-30SM heavy-multirole, 6x Su-35S air superiority, 16x Su-34 and 6x Su-24 tactical bombers, along with 6x Tu-22M3 bombers. Essentially tactical-operational, and long-range aviation. Su-24MR conducted strikes and reconnaissance of enemy targets, then Su-35S engaged in air-to-air combat against enemy fighters. Enemy air defense, deployed in starting positions, was destroyed with 48 high-explosive fragmentation bombs delivered by Su-25SM3. Judging from exercise depiction they were unguided, but using SOLT-25 navigation system with thermal imaging. Four flights of Su-34s were also in support, destroying important targets further behind enemy lines with 24x 500kg bombs. Bombing done at 600-1200 meters. 6x Tu-22M3 from 22nd Hvy Bomber Division flew sorties, dropping 1500kg bombs in pairs on enemy command centers from an altitude of 1000-2000m (that’s a 3300lb bomb to us colonials). They based out of operational airfields in Saratov and Kaluga regions.
Several types of drones were used, including Orion, Forport, Orlan-10, and Lastochka. Not sure if the story is right, claims they used 120mm laser guided mortar munitions called Gran, but from Lastochka which is a very small UAV. Videos show use of KAB-20S small guided bomb from Forpost-R. They also employed Orlan-10 with unguided munitions called ‘Mirotvorets.’
Artillery fires and strike systems
According to the MoD release, 12 battalions of MSTA-S participated at Mulino, more than 140 self-propelled systems in the 152mm caliber. Number seemed a bit off, maybe organizationally 12 battalions were involved, but 12 battalions would total 216 SPA not 140. A specialized recon-fire complex, by the name of Zemledelie, was employed against enemy reserve forces. Zemledelie is a 122mm (ISDM) engineering distance mining system – essentially a multiple launch rocket propelled mining system – able to put down a minefield of 600×200 meters at a range of 15km. This vehicle has been making appearances in greater numbers, they had quite a few more at Zapad than in Kavkaz-2020. About 10x TOS-1A Solntsepek 220mm thermobaric MLRS systems were involved in the exercise as well. They were used in conjunction with Zemledelie against enemy columns and reserve units. Interesting combination of distance mining and thermobaric MLRS.
An Iskander-M battalion (4 TELs – maybe 448th?) deployed 50km from Mulino executed a grouped missile strike against enemy command points and other critically important targets. They used both the 9M723 SRBM and 9M728 cruise missile. So, this is a different unit than at Luzhsky, for what may be a total of 3 Iskander launches on this day.
The Iskander-M launch near Mulino was a 2x SRBM launch, video surfaced later.
They rolled out Uran-9 and Nerekhta UGVs. Uran-9 features 4xAtaka ATGMs, 12x RPO PDM-A thermobaric grenade launchers, a 30mm autocannon, and PKTM machine gun. Basically, its armed to the teeth. It had test reports from Syria which suggested the vehicle had a long way to go in development to meet requirements for reliable distance operation, fidelity in sensors, and other issues. So, it’s got a ton of weapons, but functionality is a different issue. As far as big UGVs go, it is probably the ED-209 of the bunch. Nerekhta is quite small and can have different combat modules, but standard loadout is 12.7mm machine gun and 30mm AG-30M grenade launcher. Also, they displayed 3-4 B-19 vehicles, a BMP-3 platform with Epocha combat module (57mm autocannon, Kornet ATGMs, and smaller caliber ATGMs Bulat). B-19 BMP variant looked neat, except that there was clearly scoring and burn marks on the side of the turret from its own Kornet ATGM fire, looks like it needs minor tweaks.
Combat engineers setup a dummy tank battalion in defense, along with dummy Buk and S-300 units. This allowed them to lure enemy forces into attacking the wrong sector, and similarly mislead an enemy air attack against a dummy air defense battalion.
They also setup another fire wall using trenches filled with flammables – multiple rows at a 1.5km length. A different article said 1km length, but who’s counting. This time engineers activated the fire wall across three different lines using highly flammable liquid. There was also a VIED exercise, simulating the kind of up armored technicals and suicide bombers encountered in Syria.
At Luzhsky training ground
Several Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft scouted the area for ground targets, then transmitted the data and coordinates to a follow up flight of 4 x Su-34s via a closed communication channel.
An Iskander-M launch of 9M728 cruise missile took place at the range, most likely by the 26th Missile Brigade. It was used to strike targets at ranges of 100km, just as the crew had practiced via simulated electronic launches a few days beforehand.
The Russian MoD confirmed that a unified air defense system had been created in support of Zapad. It includes all forces, units, and assets tasked with early warning, and repelling air attack. These assets are controlled from one C2 center. The use of an automated control system makes it possible to identify and distribute air targets. Engagement should also be automatic. Air defense units drilling at Ashuluk operate within a highly contested electronic warfare environment in conditions of radio suppression and radio jamming in various frequency ranges. Interestingly, one of the Pantsir units showed by the Russian MoD came from the Kirov Oblast, which is not known to field any SAM regiments. It is plausible that the system was withdrawn from storage and put into operational use? Perhaps this is a mobile reserve air defense unit?
At Brest, Belarus
45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade (VDV), together with airborne units from Belarus and Kazakhstan, conducted a night time paradrop at the training range from 3 x Il-76MD at altitudes of 1500-1900m. About 90 reconnaissance paratroopers from the 45th, 60 from Belarus, and 20 from Kazakhstan. Russians used Arbalet-2 parachute system flying out of Kubinka, Belarusians used D-4 parachutes coming out of Machulishi. After landing, paratroopers practiced diversionary actions behind enemy lines, raiding, reconnaissance, and destroying objects in the enemy rear.
Saboteurs seized areas where the Baltic Sea Fleet ships were moored. Elements of the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade (Northern Fleet) and the 313th PDSS were sent in to recapture the area and neutralize the threat. They were deployed onshore through fast boats. The diversionary forces were blocked at the pier and “destroyed”. Altogether 50 personnel, 10 pieces of equipment, a Ka-29 and Ka-27 helicopter involved. The abovementioned detachment worked to prevent the breakthrough of underwater saboteurs to ships that were being loaded with weapons at the naval base.
14th Army Corps continued a second day of exercises on the Kola Peninsula, together with airborne units which had been deployed to reinforce them. They continued defending the coast against an enemy marine force which had been landed via amphibious operation. The focus this day was on the Sredniy peninsula, with 100 pieces of equipment and 800 troops. T-80BVMs completed a 100km march together with motor rifle units mounted on MT-LBs, and then practiced firing at different types of targets, backed by 2S1 Gvozdika SPA, and man portable Kornet ATGMs. Exercise involved employing camouflage, providing combat engineer support, and elements of air defense.
Meanwhile back at the Arctic expeditionary group which had sailed up the Yenisei river, PDSS units continued to train in countering diversionary operations and providing security for the small naval group that been sent there. Exercises took place along the river and at the port of Dudinka. They included Udaloy-class Severomorsk, which had been docked there for several days, along with Rapucha-class LST Georgiy Pobedonosets, and tugboat Pamir.
Russian aerospace forces had a busy day, conducting strikes in support of exercises, intercepting enemy air attacks, engaging in various opposing force scenarios and working in conjunction with ground-based air defense. This seemed to be a finale day for exercises in Belarus, with the focus on Obuz-Lesnovsky, exercises featuring defense with artillery and air support, counteroffensives, heliborne operations with VDV troops to recapture a settlement. Tank and attack helicopter based exercises at Mulino, heavy day for various armor drills, and a fair bit of rotary aviation employed. Baltic Fleet conducted a large amphibious landing, simulating both amphibious attack and coastal defense. Northern Fleet practiced anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship warfare with SSGNs, and a large coastal defense exercise led by 14th Army Corps on the Kola peninsula.
Special thanks to Konrad Muzyka for helping me put a number of these together. We were worried with less media coverage there would not be as much to write about, but that seems to have been less of a problem than earlier imagined. Apologize for any awkward sentences, there’s a lot to cover and not much time for good editing to be had here.
VKS Aerospace Forces – Air defense units and Western MD tactical aviation repelled an enemy air attack, the exercise involved 10 different tactical episodes where units trained in intercepting air targets, attacking ground forces, and bombing fortified positions. Enemy forces were played by Su-35S, Su-34, Mi-8, Mi-28N, Mi-35, Ka-52. Su-30SM and Mig-31BMs in the role of interceptors, destroying enemy air targets which were attempting to conduct a massed aviation strike (MRAU). A total of 40 aerodynamic targets were destroyed, imitating enemy cruise missiles and aircraft. The way this is written I think the MoD release got a few items mixed in terms of the size of OPFOR. If the OPFOR is composed of real aircraft then naturally they use simulated electronic launches (except in that rare occasion when a pilot accidentally arms his 30mm in a training dogfight, like back in Kavkaz-2020).
In a different set of exercises Su-35S crews intercepted Su-30SMs at about 10,000 meters. Su-30SMs played the role of opposing forces. Each enemy aircraft had to be detected by radar, presumably ground based since no mention of AWACS, and this is a combined exercise with air defense components of VKS. Su-35s sortied from Ryazan, simulating electronic launches at beyond visual range 100km+
Near Smolensk, there were a series of strikes by Su-34s and Tu-22M3s, which appeared different than the exercise in Belarus discussed later in this post. They dropped bombs from relatively low altitudes of 1000m against underground command centers, cement bunkers, and other types of ground targets. Su-30SMs provided fighter cover. Approximately 20 aircraft belonging to tactical and long range aviation employed in this event.
At Ruzhansky – (210th Air Force and Air Defense Forces Aviation Range)
Reconnaissance discovered a large grouping of opposing forces along with their airfield with aircraft. Air support was called in to destroy it. Altogether 20 Russian and Belarusian aircraft flew in and dropped 50 bombs, launched 130 unguided missiles, firing 850 30mm rounds. The first to appear were Belarusian Su-30SM fighters, which carried out additional reconnaissance over the area and established air control. Then bombers and combat helicopters arrived to destroy the enemy. The strike package included Belarusian Yak-130s, Mi-24s, but also Russian long-range aviation’s Tu-22M3s. An image of a Su-24 with fuel tanks deploying flares was published by the Belarusian MoD, which confirms that Russia deployed these in support. A CSAR mission was also conducted after a helicopter was presumed to have “crashed.” A pair of Mi-24s provided air cover for combat search and rescue.
At/around Domanovsky in Brest – (174th Air Force and Air Defense Forces Training Range)
Subunits of the Belarusian 147th Air Defense Regiment (equipped with Osa-AKM air defence system) conducted two tactical episodes at the range. They provided anti-aircraft cover for ground troops, shielded them from air attacks of a simulated enemy. The second episode involved a live-fire exercise with missiles engaging high-speed small-sized and low-altitude air targets. The regiment deployed two batteries to the range with each battery assigned three targets. The first one simulated a high-speed target (200-400 m/s) flying at an altitude of 1-4 km. The second and third targets simulated OPFOR fire support helicopters hovering at a low altitude.
An air assault battalion from the 38th Air Assault Brigade made a march from Domanovo to Brest training range. During the march, they crossed be Mukhovets River east of Brest. Their objective was to flank opposing forces and cut off potential escape routes. The 38th riverine operations seem to have been linked to the one conducted the previous day by the Russian company from the 15th MRR. They too crossed Mukhovets and flanked the opposing force from an unexpected direction, occupying the necessary area and blocking escape routes. Not clear if this took place on the 12th or 13th of September.
During the night of 12/13 September Belarusian, Russian, and Kazakh paras did a night jump from Il-76s over the Brest range. First Russian were dropped to secure the landing site. The second wave followed with Belarusian and Kazakh subunits. The drop included elements of the 38th Airborne Assault Brigade (Belarus), 76th Airborne Division (Russia), and the 35th Airborne Assault Brigade (Kazakhstan).
At Obuz-Lesnovsky (230th Combined Arms Training Range)
On the last day of the defensive phase of Zapad, Lukashenko paid a visit to this training ground, while Russia sent deputy minister of defense Evkurov. Officially, Belarus has stood up a motor rifle battalion as a part of force generation activities in support of Zapad. They might be staggering final events, having the big joint activity with Belarus on Day 3 at this range, and then the Russian one at Mulino on Day 4.
On the ground, units subordinated to the regional grouping of forces (RGF), which included elements of the Russian 4th Tank Division, 76th Air Airborne Division, Kazakh 35th Airborne Assault Brigade as well as Belarusian mechanized formations (and a newly stood up Belarusian motor rifle battalion) conducted an air assault. The scenario was first a joint force repulsing an enemy attack, setting the conditions for an effective counteroffensive, and defeated the enemy. This seemed like a fairly set-piece scenario for the regional grouping of forces, but it was a big show day for 4th Tank division and its T-80U counterattack, supported by Belarusian forces. Also they lit the range pretty well with all sorts of towed artillery, SPA, and MLRS. More than 100 pieces of artillery were used, including 2S1 Gvozdika, 2S5 Giatsint-S, and MSTA-S, BM-21 Grad and BM-27 Uragan MLRS.
OPFOR tried to conduct a counterattack with armored vehicles, but was stopped in part by a 400-meteter multi-row firewall. This is essentially engineer-sapper units (1st GTA) blowing up a ton of flammable liquid in an anti-tank trench. Engineer units then used UR-77 and UR-83P demining vehicles to clear a path for a counteroffensive. Counteroffensive followed with what seems to be all ground units deployed. Artillery, TOS-1As thermobaric weapon systems, VDV forces and elements of the 4th Tank Division, and T-72B3, T-80U. Also media claiming something called a T-90UBKh, but I think this a typo. The counter offensive was naturally a success, restoring the forces original positions.
Another part of this day’s events featured heliborne operations, lifting units into a captured settlement. The mock settlement was kind of a village, basically a set of rural looking dwellings. Airborne units surrounded the settlement with BMD-4s, then troops rappelled from Mi-8 helicopters (seem they can simultaneously deploy 5 soldiers from a helicopter via rope systems). Ka-52s supported the airborne operation, while soldiers cleared the village.
Aviation was also busy. This included Mi-24s from 50th Mixed Aviation Base Belarus and Ka-52s from Russian army aviation. Russia also deployed Tu-22M3s and Su-34s, flying from homebased airfields. The latter (4x Su-34) conducted SEAD missions against enemy air defense and traditional bombing missions. Belarusians also deployed their Su-25s and Yak-130s for ground support roles.
Since the start of Zapad, an EW group from 1st GTA has been busy suppressing radio signals of opposing forces using active jamming stations: R-934BVM “Borisoglebsk-2”, R-330Zh “Zhitel”, R-378BVM. EW units conducted a radio-electronic strike against enemy lines of communication (radio), and suppressed about 100 enemy targets which were capable of radio-electronic effects (translation a bit rough here).
Back in Russia
Luzhskiy – Approximately 30 tank and artillery crews from elements of the 6th CAA fired at targets out of direct line of sight ~6km, from established firing positions, while conducting reconnaissance at night. A couple of battle drills mentioned: tank carousel, roving tank, and tank-scout. Tank carousel is well known from Syria, where tanks cycle through a firing position in order to sustain fire on a target at a sustained rate. Roving, or maybe nomadic tank is a better term for it, (shrug on translation here) is when a tank shifts between several firing positions to confuse a force as to the actual disposition of the defenders and where they’re concentrated. The tank fires from each spot moving along a route to make it seem like there is a much larger armored unit there. Tank-scout I’m unsure about. At Luzhskiy there are about 2000 troops and more than 500 pieces of equipment, including 4 aircraft and 10 helicopters.
Over what appeared to be a Mulino training ground, Mi-35s and Mi-24s helicopters provided air support and cover for ground units. They delivered strikes against manpower and armored vehicles. Attack helicopter crews employed Shturm-V and Ataka-M ATGMs and S-8 unguided rockets. The mode of attack was based on a ‘helicopter carousel’: helicopters created a circle style battle formation, which allowed for continuous delivery of fire on opposing forces’ positions. With that approach, they engaged communications, command posts and communication routes. Also, possibly during the same event at Mulino, Mi-28N, Ka-52, Mi-35 and Mi-24 attack helicopters conducted aerial reconnaissance, launching rocket strikes against ground targets, while providing air cover for ground forces. This could be a description of the abovementioned exercise. Helicopter crews arrayed themselves into pairs, and squadrons, employing terrain masking at low altitude flight.
Elements of the 4th Tank Division (possibly a BTG) conducted an ambush, thwarting an enemy offensive. Separated from the main forces, camouflaged T-80 tanks opened volley fire at the advancing enemy columns (opposing forces were represented by moving targets). Tank crews worked out hitting targets at distances from 700m to 2.2km, and then deployed smokescreens to displace from their positions.
An NBC subunit cleaned up a mock chemical attack. According to the exercise plan, two crews of the RHM-6 CBRN reconnaissance vehicles found a “contaminated” area, determined the type of contamination, and the substance used. Terrain samples were then transferred to a headquarters. All the equipment in the contaminated zone was disinfected by ARS-14KM vehicles. The NBC unit also created an aerosol curtain to camouflage friendly forces. The thermobaric detachment used RPO-A Shmel thermobaric grenade launchers to destroy enemy forticications.
Air defence units belonging to the 44th Air Defence Division, together with the Baltic Sea Fleet’s ships and naval aviation component repelled an enemy airstrike. Combat crews deployed to areas from which they were supposed to provide air cover, readying S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. There they sought to detect and destroy air and ballistic targets represented by real airframes. The air situation was complicated by massed ‘raids’ conducted by Su-30SM and Su-24s and the presence of an An-26 military transport aircraft. These aircraft imitated an enemy air force across a range of altitudes and speeds. The exercise simulated Russian air defense systems operating in an EW-contested environment.
During the exercise, the simulated enemy force delivered cruise missile strikes with a density of up to seven targets hit per minute. The Fleet’s Su-27s took to the skies in order to intercept enemy cruise missiles, together with air defense systems (launches simulated electronically of course). The interesting part here is that each year you see more air crews training in cruise missile interception. The Baltic Fleet ships involved in this drill also made electronic launches at air targets. In total, more than 10 aircraft were involved in the exercise. The grouping of naval and ground forces was represented by four air defence battalions, and seven ships of the Baltic Fleet. On the whole it doesn’t sound like OPFOR was particularly large, but interesting to see greater integration with naval forces performing AD missions.
At Pravdinsky Training Range
Attack of OPFOR was stopped by elements of the 11th Army Corps with air support. Fighters achieved air superiority. Su-34s aircraft struck the positions of the “enemy”, its command posts, and weapons and logistics depots. Mi-24s, Su-24s and Su-30s were also involved in ground support operations. Concurrently, artillery delivered concentrated mass fires on targets and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles.
Consequently, favorable conditions were created for the transition from defense to offense. The enemy was struck by a tank subunit using the “tank carousel” technique. On top of that, the use of artillery and frontal aviation effectively defeated the identified “enemy.” Elements of the 76th Airborne Division are at Pravdinsky as well, but unsure what role they fulfil.
At Khmelevka, Baltic Fleet (336th) and Northern Fleet (61st) naval infantry units conducted an amphibious landing. Chief of the Russian Navy, Nikolai Evmenov, was present at this event personally. NF naval infantry had to seize a platsdarm and then enable the rest of the forces and equipment to land. BF naval infantry played the defenders in this scenario. First, supporting ships conducted artillery strikes along the coast to suppress defending fire positions. Then Su-30SMs and Su-24s from the Baltic Fleet provided strike support for the landing. Looks like first Raptor high-speed patrol boats unloaded groups of combat engineers to help clear a path through supposed mines on the beachhead, and set signals to designate the landing area for arriving forces. Looks like 4x Rapucha-class LSTs then unloaded naval infantry, more than 40x BTR-80 in total. This is a sizable amphibious landing for Russian forces. Along with the LSTs deployed two large aircushion landing craft (LCACs), the Zubr-class ships (Pomornik) Mordoviya and Evgeniy Kocheshkov. Looks like LCACs delivered the support units, 2s9 Nona mortars and a R-149 command vehicle.
SF and BF naval infantry then practiced their respective tasks, assault vs coastal defense. BF units were raised on alert, deployed to the area where they detected an incoming amphibious landing and began to setup positions. They defended the coast with Nona mortar systems, BM-21 Grad, and their BTR-82A APCs. Photos suggest Shilkas used on the beach as well. Altogether, about 10 ships involved in this event, more than 200 pieces of equipment, and approximately 2000 troops.
Project 1131M small anti-submarine ships Kabardino-Balkaria and Aleksin in conjunction with Ka-27PL ASW helicopters searched for a supposed enemy submarine in the Baltic Sea. Working on detection, classification, etc. they eventually found and sunk a hypothetical enemy submarine using a mix of RBU-6000 anti-submarine rocket launchers and torpedoes. Crews also practiced in live fire artillery exercises against small sea going and aerial targets.
14th Army Corps held a sizable exercise at Pechenga, simulating a defense against enemy forces on the Kola peninsula. Approximately 300 pieces of equipment including T-80BVMs, 2S1 Gvozdika and 2S3 Akatsiya SPA, venerable MT-LBs, ATGM units, and various air defense systems belonging to PVO-SV like Tunguska. They also had drones and naval aviation supporting. Su-24s from the fleet’s mixed aviation regiment joined in to conduct bombing runs against enemy forces. The exercise included practicing how to camouflage forces, better known by everyone as the dreaded maskirovka. Also electronic warfare, jamming and creating false targets. The exercise helped test signals and communications equipment, in total involving about 2000 troops from the Northern Fleet.
Northern Fleet surface combatants formed a surface search and strike group, essentially a surface action group whose primary mission is anti-submarine warfare. Seems these were small anti-submarine warfare ships, (project 1124M Grisha-class corvettes) Snezhgorsk and Yunga, working with Il-38 maritime patrol aircraft, and Ka-27PL ASW helicopters to search for enemy submarines with sonar buoys.
Meanwhile the Northern Fleet’s SSGN that had sortied on 11th September, an Oscar-II class submarine K-266 Orel, conducted a live fire exercise using P-700 Granit. The submarine fired submerged against a target imitating a large surface combatant at over 100km from its own position.
Military transport aviation (VTA) prepared to deploy airborne forces, a total of 60 crews including Il-76 and An-26. They began loading VDV units at airfields.
VDV units at Strugi Krasnyie trained with indirect fire from BMD-4M, seemed like they were talking about firing airburst fragmentation munitions using predetermined coordinates from Orlan-10 drones.
Klyazma River – Western MD engineering units built a floating brigade across the Klyazma River in the Vladimir Region. OPFOR destroyed ground lines of communication, which forced the engineering units to restore a crossing over a river using heavy mechanized bridges TMM-3M2. Mi-28Ns provided air cover.
September 11 featured a large joint exercise at Pravdinsky, representing the main tenets of maneuver defense. Air defense, EW, and tactical aviation units practiced intercepting enemy cruise missiles, drones, and penetrating strike aircraft. Airborne units were training and positioning for more active phases of the exercise coming up. A panoply of interesting reconnaissance and targeting activities, using KRUS Strelets to enable recon-fire/recon-strike loops. Northern Fleet forces sortied a SSGN and SSBN, conducting simulated fires against enemy surface action groups. Meanwhile the Baltic Fleet ran an amphibious landing exercise, and live fire exercises with CDCMs.
I took a break on Sunday which put me a bit behind, but got to see my football team lose their first game of the season. Of course that was more of a dynamic event with a motivated OPFOR.
Special thanks to Konrad Muzyka who helped me put some of these items together, it always easier with another person looking.
VKS Аеrospace Forces
Tu-22M3 and Su-34 aircraft conducted bombing runs on a training run near Smolensk (Dorogobuzh?). They bombed ground targets, denoting armored vehicles, concrete shelters, camouflaged and fortified underground command posts. Ground targets were struck from a height of around 1,000 m. Air cover provided by Su-30SMs. Altogether 20 long-range and tactical aviation aircraft were involved in this operation. (sadly no pictures)
After their deployment to operational airfields in the Ryazan region, Su-35s were sortied to intercept 10 air targets here played by Su-30SMs. The latter were detected by radio-electronic troops of the WMD. Before the OPFOR Su-30SMs entered a zone of air defense responsibility, they were ‘engaged’ by simulated electronic launches at a distance of over 100 km.
Mig-31BM units belonging to 6th AAD Army intercepted enemy aircraft at medium altitudes. These were simulated by Su-24M bombers operating as the opposing force. They then detected a group of enemy drones which could not be identified on IFF. The Migs broke up into pairs to engage enemy drone systems, preventing a hypothetical strike against Russian powerplants.
VDV Airborne– Strugi Krasnye
This proved a really interesting battalion level exercise on 10th/11th. 76th VDV division deployed 600 paratroopers with 50 pieces of equipment. Air cover provided by Su-30SMs, Ka-52s, and Mi8AMTSh helicopters, along with air control with A-50U AWACS and Il-22-SURT. Paratroopers seized an enemy airfield, marched to another mission 100km away. on their way they also practiced overcoming minefields. Looks like they had 50 BMD-4M, BTR-MDM Rakushka, and some lighter vehicles as well, along with air defense systems (Stela-10MN, ZU-23-2, Igla, Verba). Part of the activity included the column practicing repelling an enemy attack.
The 51st parachute regiment & 234th air assault regiment are from 106th division, while the 237th air assault are from 76th division. 51st is holding left flank, 237th is holding far right, a reinforced 234th is holding the main line in the center and defending against an attack on the right. The exercise is using stand in numbers under the system of exercise number -10 = actual unit number i.e. 61st – 10 = 51st regiment.
Separately, 106th VDV from Tula were airlifted by military transport aviation (VTA) from Ryazan region to Ulianovsk. Earlier at Dyagilevo airbase the 106th had assembled a full BMD-4M battalion for loading aboard transport aircraft to be paradropped. They will be doing a drop with 300 troops and more than 30 BMD vehicles at Zhitovo, using 23 x Il-76MD.
At Savasleika in Nizhny Gorod region, the 31st Air Assault Brigade which is based in Ulianovsk, began practicing rappelling from helicopters. This unit is training with using Mi-8AMTSh to airlift D-30 howitzers, and new ground mobility vehicles, Sarmat-2, which packs 3 people, 12.7mm MG and AGS-17 30mm Grenade launcher. 31st usually experiments with force structure and new tactics, air lifting equipment, and the like.
6th CAA at Mulino – Military Police destroyed an enemy diversionary group which attempted to penetrate the army’s command post. OPFOR was being played by Spetsnatz units, their mission was to sabotage the enemy command post and place mines in the area. Defending forces consisted of security and MPs, using blank rounds and smoke charges to simulate combat conditions. Snipers belonging to a motor rifle detachment practiced stopping light enemy vehicles and armor with ASVK and SVD rifles, firing at the engine blocks. They then used KRUS Strelets to relay the coordinates of enemy units to supporting artillery.
Radio-electronic warfare (EW) troops practiced disabling groups of enemy drones, forcing 20 UAS to land. In this exercise enemy drones planned to conduct strikes against military infrastructure with the aid of UCAVs. Radar units detecting incoming drones at different altitudes, then relayed their coordinates to those operating Borisoglebsk-1 and Zhitel EW systems. EW units then disrupted drone communication and navigation systems.
At Luzhsky – Western MD rotary aviation (most likely army aviation units based in Leningrad region) practiced a new tactic for destroying enemy forces with Mi-8, Mi-28N and Ka-52 helicopters. Pairs of helicopters would predeploy and sit masked on cleared positions in the forest. They then would await enemy forces to break through, takeoff from their hidden positions, and destroy targets (this one is new to me). They’re describing hit and run tactics using terrain masking.
Ashuluk training range – S-400s and Pantsir-S1 units belonging to Western MD are training at this range in repelling aerospace attack, namely defending against MRAU (Massed Missile-Aviation Strike), destroying cruise missiles simulated by target imitators, enemy drones, and tactical aviation. Air defense units will work in concert with tactical aviation.
Pravdinsky and Khmelenvka – Drone units using Orlan-10, Forpost are being used extensively as part of the exercises taking place in Kaliningrad, along with UGVs like Platforma-M. These are being employed to find and fix targets, conduct battle damage assessment, armed reconnaissance, and also to clear paths through minefield.
At Pravdinsky, there was a large exercise integrating units from the Army Corps, VKS air defense, and the fleet’s land based naval aviation components. With support from artillery and aviation they fortified a defensive line with the goal of then conducting a counterattack. The scheme includes ‘complex’ defeat of an opponent’s forces, which in practice means a set of coordinated strikes from different elements of the joint force being deployed. Ground forces used self-propelled artillery (2s3 Akatsiya) and Uragan 220mm MLRS, also BM-21 Grad, in conjunction with drones for ISR. Su-30SMs conducted strikes against enemy targets in depth, such as command posts, logistics dumps. The fleet’s Su-24s and Su-30SMs struck with unguided FAB-250s.
Meanwhile a pair of Su-27s assigned to the Fleet’s tactical aviation units at Chkalovsk practiced intercepting enemy cruise missiles with air-to-air missiles. Not sure if it was part of the same exercise, but sounds like this was all one large activity.
The use of airpower then set conditions to transition from defense to counteroffensive with motor rifle (BMP-3) and armor (T-72B3), thereby preserving the force. Artillery fires in this exercise were further coordinated with operations by Mi-24 helicopters operating at low altitudes. To simulate enemy fires they used flares, and target imitators. PVO-SV units practiced air defense with Tunguska and Igla systems. Countermine systems also engaged using UR-77 to blast corridors through enemy mine fields. A detachment was airlifted by helicopters, presumably to the rear or flanks of the opposing force. About 300 pieces of equipment, 5000 troops, and 20 aircraft are involved in this exercise at Pravdinsky. The description in this exercise reflects an increasing focus on maneuver defense in Russian military discussions, and lays out its central precepts – engaging a superior force to degrade them, retreating to reserve lines to avoid being pinned, massing artillery and airpower against them as they concentrate, which sets the conditions for a counteroffensive – and preserving the force with minimal losses.
Brest training range – Russian forces together with Belarusian units began digging in to prepare their positions against air attack. They trained in repelling enemy reconnaissance groups, snipers prepared positions, and others setup security posts. Also at Brest there’s a whole discussion about topographers belonging to the tank regiment deployed there using systems like Kaleidoscope (and 1T134M) to create full 3D maps of the area, with accurate measurements. This helps artillery units and those in predetermined positions have a much better sense of the area and fire with greater accuracy.
Recon units penetrated behind enemy lines, and employed KRUS Strelets targeting systems. Their goal was to find enemy armor concentrations, command and control points, fuel and ammo dumps, along with railroad hubs for unloading equipment. With Strelets they were able to relay coordinates to supporting artillery and aviation for strikes.
Elements of the 96th Reconnaissance Brigade deployed three different types of reconnaissance drones (namely quadrocopters) to ascertain the positions of an enemy force. This allowed them to make a detailed map of the terrain of the area where the conditional enemy forces were located. Quadrocopters were flown to 100 meters, which allowed them to deploy without detection. Data was then transmitted to fire systems to destroy targets.
Elements of a Belarusian SOF unit (unclear which) returned home from Ivanovo where they practiced with the 98th Airborne Division. Belarusian SOF unit conducted a riverine operation combing with seizing an island. The attack on the island (retaking it from diversionary groups which had seized it), was carried out from several directions. The first group of divers were deployed to a splashdown area by a Mi-8MTV-5 helicopter. The second group landed on special wing-type parachutes and immediately entered into a battle. Some ‘militants’ tried to escape from the island in a motorboat, but they were destroyed using a combat drone.
Northern Fleet – As part of its Arctic expeditionary group NF practiced destroying an enemy surface action group in the Barents. Ships involved include Sovremenny-class destroyer Admiral Ushakov, Gorshkov-class frigate Admiral Kasatonov, coastal defense cruise missile batteries fielding Bal (SSC-6) and Bastion-P (SSC-5). CDCMs deployed from their bases to firing positions along the Kola peninsula. Bal CDCMs fired together with Admiral Ushakov against targets 100km from the coast. Meanwhile Admiral Kasatonov, and Bastion armed CDCM units, conducted simulated electronic fires against naval targets, and worked on coordinating the targeting process.
Two nuclear powered submarines got underway, K-266 Orel (Oscar-II), and K-51 Verkhoturye (Delta IV). PDSS units helped protect the submarines against enemy diversionary groups during their departure. Minesweepers conducted counter-mine operations to help get the submarines clear, forming two minesweeping groups including Elnya, Soloevetskiy Yunga, Yadrin, and Kotelnich. Also looks like a NF Mig-31BM intercepted a Norwegian P-3S Orion over the Barents, most likely there to conduct intelligence on Russian submarines departing from their bases.
Baltic Fleet – A battalion of Bal CDCMs conducted simulated electronic strikes against an enemy amphibious landing groups. The training involved deploying to launch points, setting up and camouflaging equipment, reload drills, and securing the launch site.
Elements of the Baltic Sea, and Northern Fleet conducted a bilateral amphibious operation on the Khmelevka Training Range. Respectively, these are the 336th and 61st Naval Infantry Brigades. The latter has been training with the Baltic Sea Fleet naval infantry throughout the entire August. The exercise was observed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, Admiral Nikolai Evmenov. The 61st Naval Infantry Brigade was first deployed to seize a bridgehead and ensure that equipment landed for a deeper an offensive into unfamiliar territory. The 336th Naval Infantry Brigade was tasked with defending beach areas.
A detachment of fire support ships first delivered an artillery strike along the coast to suppress 336th artillery positions. Engineers were then brought by Raptor fast-attack craft first to clear and mark lanes for follow on forces. After the engineers cleared a lane, several BTR-80/82 vehicles were deployed to the shore from the four Project 775 large landing ships. In the meantime, Evgeniy Kocheshkov Project 1232.2 Zubr LCAC with Nona 120mm mortars and R-149MA1 command and staff vehicles.
Specialists in EW provide cover for command posts and important industrial facilities, along with electronic support functions like reconnaissance and identifying transmitting targets. They will emphasize counter-UAS, using experience gained dealing with enemy drones in Syria. There are approximately 300 EW specialists and 50 pieces of equipment involved in Zapad, including Krasukha-S4, Krasukha-2.0, Zhitel, and Borisoglebsk.
Combat service support (MTO) components will practice repair, evacuation, providing field service, etc. A repair and maintenance battalion has been deployed from Western MD’s independent MTO brigade. Prior to the active phase of training, MTO units will train in repairing vehicles, using 20 different types of equipment (KET-L, BTS-4, B3EM-K, TRM, MTO-UB-2). Also mobile repair stations with cranes, for example BAKM 1040 BK, which can lift 4.95tons. More footage to follow later in the exercise.
The first part of the exercise usually involves practicing components of active defense, deflecting a massed missile-aviation attack, and engaging a superior ground force. There are flanking movements, airborne raids, counterattacks. Much of the opening day consisted of ground formations practicing maneuver defense against a superior force, airborne units conducting a night paradrop w/equipment, air defense and tactical aviation working in concert to repel an aerospace attack, and ships getting underway from their bases. Kaliningrad had a significant exercise, and there were a number of combined arms events at Mulino, along with training ranges in Belarus. Interesting support activities, setting up communications network, deploying medical units, engineers building command posts, firing positions, fortifications, etc. There are strong hints that tactical missile strikes are soon to come, and a mixed type artillery group will be formed to conduct coordinated fires later in the exercise.
Working with Konrad Muzyka to put some of this together – less information available on training activities than during past years.
Western MD tactical aviation (6th Air and Air Defense Army), began combat air patrols at forward airbases in Ryazan and Tambov regions, Su-35S and Su-30SM crews. The Su-35s involved is possibly the 790th Fighter Aviation Regiment. This development was a part of a larger deployment of combat aircraft and helicopters to operational airfields. This involved the entire range of Russian combat and logistics airframes including Su-35S, Su-30SM, MiG-31BM, Su-34, Mi-8s, Mi-35s, Ka-52s, and Mi-28Ns. Once deployed, they will practice delivering massive airstrikes on command posts and infrastructure of the “enemy”, repelling a massed missile airstrike using air bombs, guided and unguided air missiles, as well as cannons.
Kaliningrad – an exercise involving a BTG with considerable artillery support, with engineers first preparing fortifications and reserve firing positions. The main force conducted maneuver defense using BMP-3s, setting ambushes, and counterattacking the opposing formations. Tank detachments practiced luring enemy units into an ambush and retreating to prepared firing positions. Special attention paid to maintaining communications in a contested electronic environment, assuming the opponent was using EW against the unit. This exercise featured 1000 troops, 70 pieces of equipment, including T-73B3, BMP-2/3, 2s3 Akatsiya, BM-21 Grad, BM-27 Uragan, Tunguska-M1. Looks like Su-24s involved as well.
At Mulino, VKS air defense units composed of S-400 and Pantsir-S1 setup air defenses for the ground force formations. Once they reached the designated areas near Nizhny Novgorod, they repulsed a massive air strike of a mock enemy. More than 50 targets were detected in the entire range of heights and speeds. The exercise only involved electronic launches. Another detachment of air defense units is in Ashuluk, Astrakhan. This range is going to be used as part of the exercise even though it is not listed. Their job is to work with tactical aviation in repelling air attack, intercept cruise missiles (simulated with target imitators), and deal with enemy drones.
Armor units at Mulino (20th CAA) trained engaging enemy forces in defensive battle, using smokescreens T-72B3s withdrew under enemy fire, and repositioned their main force along echeloned lines. Description suggests Russian armor practicing maneuver defense, engaging to degrade forces, withdrawing to avoid being pinned, and repositioning again along new defensive lines to reengage at 1500km (pretty short range for a tank). There was some staple language regarding “nonstandard” approaches in tactics, creating new methods for training and preparations. They’re continuing the discussion on using new forms for training tank, motor rifle, and engineering units.
Military police subunits destroyed a sabotage and reconnaissance group of the mock enemy during its attempt to attack the command post of the 6th Combined Arms Army (6th CAA) (WMD). Simulated enemies, here played by WMD Spetsnaz, attempted to infiltrate the command post, mine its key facilities, and disrupt the operation of the communications system. So far there has been little information about the presence of units belonging to the 6th CAA in Zapad. At the Mulino Training Range, only one BTG from the 138th MRB is present.
Some 600 paras (one full BTG) and an unclear number of equipment (BMD variants, and Nona artillery – its a bit murky on how many) from the 76th Air Assault Division (possibly the 104th Air Assault Regiment). This was supposedly the Russian VDV’s first battalion sized night airdrop, using NVG equipment. Their task is to seize an enemy airbase, then defend it against counterattack during daytime. Supposedly they made a 100km march to Strugi Krasnye Training Range. The exercise description is a bit unclear, the vehicle numbers, distance to range, and troop numbers don’t quite add up. The 76th Air Assault Division is quite busy. It has three BTGs forward-deployed, one in the Kaliningrad Oblast and two in Belarus (Brest and Baranovichi). The BTG is Brest is without heavy equipment.
A battalion from the 137th Airborne Regiment of the 106th Airborne Division is getting ready to conduct a full battalion airdrop with 30 BMD-4Ms. This is the first time the battalion will conduct such a drop. Altogether 15 Il-76 MD transport aircraft are involved in the operation. They will fly from Dyagilevo in the Ryazan Region to Ulyanovsk-Vostochny and then back to Zhitovo landing site in the Ryazan region when the drop will occur.
Elements of the 98th Airborne Division along with a Belarusian SOF unit (unclear which – perhaps 5th Spetsnaz Brigade?) concluded a three-day special forces exercise. They practiced joint reconnaissance operations in unfamiliar terrain or destroyed objects of a conditional enemy. They also did joint jumps including over a town. Specifically, after the jump, they bypassed obstacles, installed anti-tank mines and seized designated areas. Operations were done in full gear. The active phase of the exercise finished on 9th September. Units are now ‘restoring their combat capability and are awaiting further instructions’. They may be utilized again soon. Altogether 40 Belarusians and 350 Russians were involved in this exercise.
Signal and electronic warfare units belonging to the Western Military District deployed digital communication systems, automated C2 systems, satellite uplinks. The system is supposedly concealed from enemy electronic warfare, and defended against enemy drones. Emphasis placed on 4 echelons: mil district command, joint formation, combined arms formation, battalion level. About 1500 personnel involved, 600 pieces of equipment, communications stations R-160-0.5 and digital complexes P-240I-4 Pereselenets.
Military topographers at Mulino training range created 3D topographical models of the battlespace to enable navigation systems. They used geodesic-navigational systems PNGK-1 and topographic systems PtsTS, to build a 3D model of the battlefield. Meanwhile military training specialists (about 200) have setup a complex target environment, with 15,000 targets, echeloned across Mulino training range at a depth of up to 20km.
Engineers belonging to 20th CAA setup fixed field and mobile command points, with camouflage and fortifications. These were dugout with excavators, then power supply provided using ED-1000 and ED-100 generators. Medical detachments have also been deployed, including МОСН units (special purpose medical detachments). CBRN specialists belonging to 1st Guards Tank Army conducted measurements and surveilled the environment using new RKhM-6 equipment. As has often been the case, there is a strong role for aerosol camouflage units, using TDA-M smokescreens to create an aerosol masking for movement of ground forces.
Training events in Belarus
Baranovichi Air Base – Russian Su-30SMs from the 14th Fighter Aviation Regiment based in Khalino airfield in Kursk began joint combat duty with their Belarusian counterparts. Belarus keeps some Mig-29s and up to four Su-30SMs at this base.
Brest Training Range – Elements of the Russian 15th MRR of the 2nd MRD Division conducted a river crossing operation over Mukhovets River, east of Brest. Some 10-13 BMP-2s were involved, suggests a company-level operation. A subunit from the Belarusian 6th Mechanized Brigade could have also been engaged in this exercise. Other elements of the 6th Mechanized Brigade conducted maneuver defense with a reinforced mechanized battalion against a superior enemy force. Under cover of air and artillery strikes, the servicemen reached the main defensive line. Reportedly they also exercises new forms and methods of combating unmanned aerial vehicles.
The 174th Domanovsky Air and Air Defense Forces Training Ground – Belarusian elements of the 38th Airborne Assault Brigade conducted reconnaissance in wooded areas, discovering the OPFOR base. An airborne assault company carried out a raid on the base eliminating and capturing some forces.
The remaining elements of the conditional illegal armed group tried to break through one of the blocking lines using a UAV to reconnoiter escape routes. Opposing forces pushed forward in combat vehicles, but were destroyed by Belarusian units. In the meantime, an air defense platoon engaged light aircraft and helicopters of the opposing forces with MANPADS and Zu-23-2 anti-aircraft guns.
Advanced elements of the Russian 76th Air Assault Division along with the leadership headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus conducted reconnaissance of the Brest and Obuz-Lesnovsky (this is Baranovichi Training Range or the 230th Combined Arms Training Range) ranges, examined the sites for the forthcoming landing of the operational-tactical assault force. The Russian MoD states that during the active phase of Zapad paratroopers from Russia and Belarus will practice airborne assault including airdropping personnel and equipment, destroying a simulated enemy in the landing area, holding forward lines to ensure successful action of the main grouping of troops. This means that we can expect some airborne drops around Baranovichi and Brest in the coming days.
Also in Belarus, subunits of the regional military police department and the military automobile inspection of the Western Military District went on duty. Russian military police, together with units of the military commandant’s offices of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus will ensure security and carry out round-the-clock patrolling and protection of exercise sites, command posts, as well as ensure the observance of law and order and military discipline in the areas where troops are stationed.
There are several Northern Fleet exercises under way which are billed as a separate set of activities involving 8,000 servicemen, 800 pieces of military equipment, 120 drones, and 50 ships. These exercises will take place in Murmansk region, Barents, Kara, and Laptev Seas, along Frantz-Josef Land and New Siberian Islands. They’re aimed at defending sea lines of communications like the northern sea route, protecting strategic economic infrastructure, and training to command an expeditionary Arctic group whose job is to destroy diversionary groups/terrorists (basically retake key objects captured by opposing forces). However, the Northern Fleet will also be involved in exercises with the Baltic Fleet, as part of Zapad-2021. Zapad and capstone training events within other military districts are not easily separated. The Northern Fleet’s announcement that it will begin practical exercises as part of training with this Arctic expeditionary group, is coincidentally on September 10th, when Zapad-2021 also formally begins. So, why include all this? Why not? It’s hard to see a Zapad exercise without any Northern Fleet component to it, and NF activity is always interesting.
So what’s does the Northern Fleet have in progress? A minesweeper exercise with units from the Kola Flotilla, enabling ships and submarines to leave their naval bases. A small naval group led by Udaloy-class Severomorsk, along with a Ropucha-class LST (Georgiy Pobedonosets), and tugboat (Pamir) has sailed down the Yenisei River to the port of Dudinka (arrived September 7th). There they conducted a training in retaking the port from a diversionary group (61st Naval Infantry BDE). Its interesting they call this expeditionary, because in truth the Northern Fleet does not have an easy time operating in the Central and Eastern Arctic. It’s one thing getting out of the Kola peninsula and out to the Barents, its another to operate along the length of the Arctic or northern sea route.
Some 15 combat and support ships left ports in Kaliningrad and Baltyisk, entering their designated operating areas in the Baltic Sea. There they will conduct anti-submarine warfare, air defense, counter-mine warfare, as well as firing missiles and artillery at targets. It is a mixed grouping of ships including LSTs, (suggesting prep for amphibious operations), corvettes (looks like all the Steregushchiy-class are out), anti-submarine ships, minesweepers, missile boats, a kilo-submarine, and auxiliaries.
Diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine (project 877 B-806 Dmitrov) served as OPFOR, firing 4 training torpedoes against targets which were meant to simulate the Baltic Fleet. The torpedoes were later recovered.
Other nations’ forces training on Russian equipment
This post will briefly provide an exercise overview, and some coverage of preceding events on September 6-9. Special thanks to Konrad Muzyka (Rochan Consulting) for helping me collect some of the activities, and contribute to the writeups. We teamed up for Kavkaz-2020, which worked out well, and will try to repeat that here for Zapad-2021. Unfortunately, so far there’s been less coverage of this exercise available in the Russian press and official MoD releases than in previous years.
Technically this is a Strategic Command-Staff Exercise (СКШУ), but it has been re-designated a Joint Strategic Exercise (ССУ), most likely because it involves Belarus and a number of other countries. According to the Russian MoD the total exercise participant count is 200k, but no more than 6400 under any single operational command which is their supposed loophole under the Vienna Document. Belarus has claimed that its component taking place on Belarusian soil will be a total of 12,800, with 2,500 Russian troops involved. In Russia there are at least 9 training ranges and an additional 5 in Belarus, plus a training sector most likely around Grodno. Northern Fleet seems excluded from the described scope of activity, but clearly has a component in this exercise and is starting major activities on the same day. However, the real numbers of Russian forces involved in Belarus appear quite larger as units have been deploying there since July. Actual size of the exercise seems to vary depending on who is talking about it. Zvezda featured a map which shows 15 Russian training ranges, as opposed to the officially released 9. That’s not including Northern Fleet participation.
A further 2,000 coalition forces from 7 countries also participating, most probably at Mulino. Seems India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Sri Lanka are involved with small contingents. These coalition elements began training on September 6, Russia is supplying the exercise equipment. Earlier in August a joint exercise with China in China’s northwest called Interaction2021 was relabeled as part of the overall Zapad-2021 series of events. Russian forces deployed to China for that event in early August. Technically Zapad has been taking place for several months since forces have been deploying in July to various training ranges.
Because of the time scope its not possible to cover all the days of events preceding September 10, and some of the associated events playing out in other districts, so choices have to be made – will be keeping this largely to Western Military District, Belarus, and some activities of Northern Fleet JSC.
A Western coalition comprised of three states/forces seeks to wrest Belarus (Polesie) away from its alliance with Russia (Central Federation) by force, conduct regime change in Minsk, and annex Western parts of the country. Western coalition consists of Nyaris, Pomorie, and Polar Republic. These seem to represent Lithuania, Poland, also parts of Latvia, and likely NATO coalition forces deployed in Poland. They are opposed by the Northern Coalition composed of Russia and Belarus. After failing to achieve its objectives via indirect means, the Western coalition declares an ultimatum demanding complete withdrawal of Russian forces (Sept 1). Subsequently, they conduct missile and air strikes in Belarus/Russia (likely MRAU Sept 2-5), and then on Sept 6-10 they cross the border penetrating to a depth of 150km into Belarusian territory. Northern coalition forces defend their positions, a Regional Grouping of Forces (joint formation of Russian & Belarusian forces) attempts to repel the aerospace attack and mount a defense. Central Federation forces have deployed 11th tank and 51st Army into Belarus (11th probably representing 1st GTA, 30th represents 20th CAA), meanwhile 51st army is a stand in for 41st CAA. Whats the method here? Exercise army number -10 = actual army it represents.
Timeline: Looks like preparatory drills at training ranges September 6-9, formal opening ceremonies have been held on Sept 9. During the first three days on Sept 10-12 the exercise focuses on deploying forces, logistics, and mounting defensive combat operations (usually parrying aerospace attack, deploying forces under fire, airborne flanking raids, counterattacks and strikes, etc.), then Sept 13-16 emphasis is on destroying the opponent (establishing fire cauldrons to degrade opponent forces, setting conditions for counteroffensive, then conducting a counteroffensive to restore status quo ante bellum, and attaining war termination). Exercise completes by September 16th, and by Sept. 30th Russian forces are supposed to return to their bases.
September 6-9: Brief round up
An Iskander-M battalion in Leningrad Oblast deploys to a training range, simulates electronic strikes against opponent command posts deep behind enemy lines, in coordination with drones (presumably for targeting), conducts reload drills.
Northern Fleet’s naval infantry (about 200 troops and 20xBTR-80) trained in loading equipment onto 3 Ropucha-class LSTs belonging to the Baltic Fleet in Baltiysk (Korolev, Kaliningrad, Minsk) , and 1 Ropucha-class LST that came down from the Northern Fleet (Olengorskiy Gorniyak).
At Mulino reconnaissance units practiced integration between KRUZ Strelets reconnaissance complex, using laser rangefinders, then relaying coordinates to Msta-SM2 self-propelled artillery (500 troops and 70 pieces of equipment involved). In a separate exercise Grad BM-21 batteries were used with MSTA-S SPA, and mortar units to destroy enemy targets at ranges up to 20km, along with practicing displacement and counterbattery fire. Orlan-10 drones and Strelets systems used for targeting. Heavy artillery like 203mm Malka also training at Mulino and Liada, along with BM-30 Smerch MLRS systems at a range of about 50km. They’re practicing coordinating the use of long range MLRS and 203mm artillery ahead of a planned employment of an artillery grouping of forces that essentially combines different types – as was seen last year during Kavkaz, the final event included simultaneous strikes by SRBM, long range MLRS, and artillery units.
Units belonging to one of the 6th CAA motor rifle brigades practiced a combined arms operation – defensive battle against an attacking opponent, using T-73B3, BM-21 Grad, 2S1 Gvozdika, and Sani mortars. Motor rifle units in this fight were supported by Ka-52 helicopters from army aviation units, and Orlan-10 drones for ISR.
Other trainings of note: Engineer-sapper units in Voronezh and Belgorod practiced overcoming minefields, using KMT-7 counter-mine systems. At Mulino sappers used Uran-6 demining UGVs, and liberated a town together with military police. Light reconnaissance units conducted a 100km march using Tigr vehicles, to sever an opponent’s lines of communication and detect their formations using Eleron drones.
A separate training in Pskov features Mi-28N attack helicopters against an enemy command point (10 helicopters). Exercise appeared to be largely unguided rocket fire against fixed targets. Western MD tactical aviation was used to intercept enemy reconnaissance aircraft with Su-30SMs, in coordination with air defense systems and radar. In one briefing map they showed opponent forces fielding Global Hawks. There was a series of drills for Kaliningrad’s mixed aviation regiment with about 20 aircraft of different types, ranging from air combat for Su-30SM units, to strike missions for Mi-24s, and ASW for Ka-27s. S-400 ADS units belonging to the Baltic Fleet conducted air defense exercises uses Su-27s and Su-30SMs to imitate opponents, operating in a contested EW environment. At Luzhsky, Pantsir-S1 air defense units trained in repelling an aerospace attack by a squadron of enemy strike drones. PVO-SV units at Mulino (Strela-10, Osa, Tunguska-M, Igla) similarly practiced air defense, with Ka-52 and Mi-8 AMTSh helicopters serving as the opposing force. Also Western MD air defense units are deploying to Ashuluk, Astrakhan.
Great discussion of Russia’s State Armament Program 2018-2025, defense budget, procurement, and many other topics of interest, hosted by CSIS Russia Program. Tomas Malmlof leads off the talk, my points come in at the 46 minute mark in this conversation, and Olga Oliker moderates the discussion.
My latest article in TNI summarizing key aspects of Russian military power and the balance in Europe.
The current confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations, and increasing antagonism in the relationship, makes it difficult to separate structural changes in the European security environment from politically charged sources of conflict. Yet these changes have been profound, dating back to Russian military reforms launched in late 2008. They have serious implications for the new U.S. administration. The principal factors are Russia’s revival of the military as an instrument of national power, the unsettled war in Ukraine, and NATO’s changing posture to counter a perceived threat from Moscow’s machinations.
Seeking an improved, or perhaps simply more stable, relationship with Russia from a “position of strength” requires understanding the new military balance in Europe, the evolution of Russia’s military capabilities, and its evolving force posture. Independent of whether the proximate causes of hostility in U.S.-Russian relations are resolved, or there is a change in the broader atmospherics of the relationship, the United States must develop a strategy and policy for dealing with Russia, grounded not in optimism but in hard military realities. The previous administration suffered from a severe rhetoric-to-strategy gap, contesting Russia politically but losing strategically.
It would be safe to assume that distrust will continue to dominate NATO-Russia relations, and that even if interactions on the whole may improve—arguably, they cannot worsen—they may not produce concrete results in short order. A fact-based approach to the security situation in Europe should inform further changes in U.S. force structure and posture. Unfortunately, for the past two years discourse on this subject has been only marginally informed by reality, with policy advocacy and agendas driving analysis of the Russian military threat. Debate has often taken place either in a fact-free zone, or with new information overconsumed by a policy establishment long unaccustomed to dealing with Russia as a serious adversary. The United States has not been winning the geopolitical confrontation with Russia of late; nor has it come up with a vision for how to change the dynamics in this adversarial relationship.
Like its predecessor, the new administration will have to formulate its Russia policy in the aftermath of a crisis in European security; this is an opportunity either to make fresh mistakes, or to get things right. To succeed, the administration must base its strategy not on individual capabilities that Russia has, the individual concerns of proximate NATO members, or the designs of different constituencies within the U.S. policy establishment, but on a coherent understanding of the security dynamics in Europe and Russian military power.
Russia Has Been Busy
The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by the Obama administration in 2009. Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force. The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.
The reform process and a stable infusion of much-needed capital have restored war-fighting potential to the Russian military, though incomplete, and unevenly applied to the force. Moscow’s ability to sustain this spending is very much in question, faced with low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. However, Russia has made the choice to defend defense spending and enact cuts elsewhere. Reductions will be made to the procurement program, but Moscow will maintain spending on nuclear modernization and long-range standoff weapons, trying to sustain the force at current levels In reality, loss of access to key components from Ukrainian and European defense industries created the most serious setbacks to Russian defense modernization (delays of about five to seven years in 2014).
Russia’s defense budget steadily climbed from to a peak of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Since then, it has been in relative decline, though likely to remain above 3.7 percent, well beyond the spending levels of America’s European allies. This level of expenditure is probably unsustainable for the Russian budget, inevitably forcing its leadership to choose between weapons procurement, operations and the quality of personnel. However, the inertia of the current modernization program will have lasting effects well into the 2020s.
Bottom line, Russia can sustain this military with judicious reductions, and even if the funding base collapses, the dramatic turnaround in its armed forces is not a temporary bounce that the United States must ride out. Russia’s General Staff has been focused on drilling the force with snap readiness checks, joint exercises, large movements and annual operational-strategic exercises. From its air force to the nuclear-powered submarines of its navy, the Russian military has quickly clawed back operational readiness not seen since the 1990s.
Recently Russia’s MoD announced the formation of two territorial defense battalions as part of the series of exercises and readiness checks held August 25-31 across military districts. As most know these checks are in preparation for the main show of this training year, Kavkaz-2016, and typically it is during the annual operational-strategic exercise when Russia’s military tries to muster the reserves. The story of Russia’s reserve program, or lack thereof, is a rather interesting saga that I will discuss in this post.
This year, perhaps for the first time, the MoD announced that as part of the drills a territorial battalion of 500 reservists was formed as a naval infantry unit (likely with equipment from 810th naval infantry bde). This battalion will practice basic elements of naval infantry and coastal defense, while in Novosibirsk the first motor rifle battalion of 400 reservists was assembled. Both groups are civilians under contract as reservists. The first group was likely put together by the naval infantry brigade while the second group was organized by the Novosibirsk’s higher military command school.
August 29 TASS reported that a territorial defense regiment at full strength was formed in Stavropolskiy Kray. This apparently is also a first alongside the battalions put together in Crimea and Novosibirsk. The regiment’s equipment seems to have come from the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Cossack Brigade in Budennovsk and it will participate in the annual exercise. It’s unclear if this unit is part of the fledgling experimental reserve program (those who signed 3 year contracts) or from the general reserves mobilized regularly for operational-strategic exercises.
The Novosibirsk motor rifle unit (MoD website)
The appearance of these reservist based formations was announced as part of the ‘introduction’ of a new system to train and support reservists, or shall we say the system which has repeatedly been announced, and ordered multiple times, but refused to come into being. Perhaps we are seeing the first inklings of Russia’s experimental reserve system coming alive?
The subject of reserves is more interesting than it may at first appear. When Russia’s military underwent its tumultuous reform period from late 2008-2012 it setup a permanent standing army but without a reserve. The reserve was a list of people on paper, but as I’ve commented from time to time: excel spreadsheets don’t fight. You cannot summon civilians to a base full of equipment they’ve never seen, having not gone through basic training in years, and expect that mass to somehow become a fighting unit. The mass mobilization army was slain, but the new standing army has been living without a functioning reserve. The current reserve can work for basic territorial defense units, guarding a checkpoint, facility, but they cannot conduct combat operations.
This creates certain practical problems for our imagined high-end fights with NATO or any other conventional campaign requiring large numbers of troops. How does Russia replace its losses in combat, and who defends Russia while its forces attack along a particular vector? Territorial defense battalions are not intended to defend against a conventional force. The Russian ground force is actually quite small if we consider the army, airborne VDV and naval infantry probably add up to north of ~300,000 troops for what is one eighth the world’s land mass. That’s a lot of real estate to defend.
In order to supplement its maneuver units, Russia needs a reserve it can call up with some combat capability. The self-evident manpower limitations offer practical explanations for why occupying large parts of Ukraine was never in the cards for the Russian military. Taking over the Baltics, the contingency NATO officials have become fixated with of late, is also not as simple as it might seem in wargames. Its not the invasion itself but the occupation part that always gets people – the U.S. has lots of experience in this department.
Why do I say Russia has no working reserve? In his recent ruminations on the threat of hybrid warfare earlier this year, which for Russian leaders is shorthand for color revolutions and Western covert operations, Valery Gerasimov noted “The growth in hybrid threats dictates the urgency of increasing the effectiveness of territorial defense,” and “What is essential now is a scientific analysis of the forms and modes of employing multi-agency groupings, of the sequence of actions by the military and non-force constituent of territorial defense given the possible emergence of crisis situations in a matter of days and even hours.” It seems the territorial defense concept is geared towards internal security, suppressing color revolutions and the like, rather than supporting the armed forces. That’s great for managing domestic political stability etc, but it doesn’t quite solve the Army’s problem with respect to warfighting.
The naval infantry territorial defense battalion in Crimea (MoD website)
In the beginning…
Our story begins in May 7, 2012 when Vladimir Putin first ordered the creation of a national reserve for the armed forces, and the inauguration of a new system to train and mobilize reservists. That order went into effect on January 1, 2013. A subsequent order to sign up reservists and get this scheme going was signed on April 23, 2013. According to the plan, prior to completing their military service soldiers would be offered a 3 year contract in the reserves, with a monthly payment ranging from 5,000-8,000 RUB per month. The order stipulated that the pay should be attractive enough for soldiers to sign a reserve contract and the time of service could be renewed up to a certain age.
It is also worth noting also that in September 2011 the General Staff setup a department to lead the organization of territorial defense units across government agencies (its current head is Major-General Sergei Dudko), though its unclear if any territorial defense units were summoned between 2011-2016 so however was in charge of this section may have had an easy job.
Prior to this pilot program, in the early-mid 2000s, the practice of mustering reservists was a ‘check the box’ affair. Perhaps the largest showing occurred during the Vostok-2010 exercise. Those called up spent their time in camp without real refresh training or familiarization with new equipment. One individual described it as an exercise that consisted largely of ten days attacking one’s own liver. Back during the days of the the USSR reservists were looked down upon as lacking discipline or combat utility, referred to as ‘partisans’ by the officers who had to take them in during drilling cycles.
The Duma committee planned expenditures of 279.4 million in 2014, 288.3 mil in 2015 and 324.9 mil in 2016 for this initiative. Let’s do the math on that: at the cheaper end in 2014 it would have bought you 4656 reservists, and at higher officer rates only 2910, so we can fix the range of reserves at somewhere safely below 4,500 i.e. less than two brigades worth. The new program’s budget came out of the MoD, which may have been its initial undoing. However, Российская газета reported that even those paltry amounts were never allocated and the whole plan to muster reserves was shifted to 2016. In short, nothing happened in 2013.
A great photo of one city’s government officials participating in reserve drills during the mid-2000s. No doubt this is another aspect of the Russian military that has since changed.
We first see movement when Vladimir Putin signs an order on June 27, 2014 to implement the training and call-up plans for the reserve. The crux of this order is essentially for the MoD to realize the previous orders. According to this document, the reservists were to be assigned duties corresponding to their specialties, with readiness checks of the various command elements involved in the system – this means the officers that would form reserve units, the voenkomat that mobilizes them, and equipment storage bases to equip them. In essence the order was for two types of checks, one for the system to call up reserves and one for the reservists themselves. The idea was to energize the system ahead of the Vostok-2014 to be held that year.
In August 2014 Major-General Sergei Major-General Sergei Udin, head of mobilization command for the Western MD, explained that the number of reservists called up annually must increase due to the new equipment being fielded, which requires more training and certification. For Vostok-2014 those called up were mostly lower ranking officers in the platoon/company commander range along with ensigns/sergeants. According to him the selection of training sites was based on units that had entirely replaced or modernized their equipment. The MoD approach was quite logical in terms of how they intended to carry out reserve drills.
The average time spent drilling was 15-25 days, and the pay ranged 450-600 RUB per day. Various media reported the ages of those called up were 28-50, though the pay was listed differently as 8,000 for regulars and 20,000 for officers during their training. The different types of checks to be conducted during this exercise were listed as: drills for the command staff in charge of the reserves, assembly for training as a readiness check or mustering to begin an actual exercise. Given the reserve system was still largely nonexistent, 2014 probably saw mostly a check of the command staff assigned to taking in reservists along with some individuals called up to support various units.
Maybe in 2015?
Alexander Golts has followed this over the years and at the time he wrote that the military aspired to expand the 5,000 man program to 8,000 by 2015 if successful. According to him, there was enough equipment in storage bases to arm perhaps 60 brigades (no doubt less now given how much equipment was given to DNR/LNR). Lieutenant-General Vladimir Ostankov, suggested similar figures, but it seems the 5,000 strong reserve did not come to pass in 2014.
Based on the pay alone it was impossible to have that number of reservists with the funding allocated. The deputy commander of the General Staff’s mobilization department, Yevgeni Burdinsky essentially said that the experiment to form 5,000 reservists would take place in 2015 and compared the concept to the system in Israel, albeit with a ‘different purpose.’ It’s unclear what that was supposed to mean, but its safe to say Russia does not have a reserve like Israel’s.
On February 5, 2015 Vladimir Putin signed another order stating that reservists would carry out drills not longer than two months, applicable to the MoD, MVD, various security structures and FSB. Prior orders had yet to produce even an experimental reserve system. Perhaps more interestingly, the FSB was listed alongside other government structures as though they have a reserve. The timing itself was quite problematic. Russian forces were headlong into a winter offensive in Ukraine engaged in what would become the battle of Debaltseve that month. Unlike the obtuse political leadership, Russia’s MoD understood how the public might interpret a call up of reservists for drills given what was being shown on the news. Hence the MoD supplemented the signed order with a statement emphasizing that this announcement had no connection to the ‘escalating situation in bordering regions of the Donbass.’
The official statement was a tacit acknowledgement of what most undoubtedly knew, Russian forces were fighting in Ukraine. If the General Staff believed that the public was convinced otherwise, they would not feel the need to issue a clarification on why reservist drills were being ordered, explaining that it had nothing to do with the war Russia was not fighting.
By July 17, 2015 Vladimir Putin would sign yet another order, the purpose of which was to motivate the military to take his 2012 instructions seriously. This document would once against tell the MoD to establish the reserve as part of the new/experimental system being introduced. By implication, the Kremlin understood that the 5,000 pilot program never went anywhere and he was ordering the MoD to make it happen. The takeaway here is that Russia’s leader understands quite well when something has not materialized, but he cannot will it into being just by stamping documents with the presidential seal. As anyone with defense experience knows, dealing with a military bureaucracy is sometimes like punching into a pillow.
Another photo of the Crimean territorial defense battalion (at least that is what TASS posted)
2016 – A great year to launch an experimental reserve program again
A snap exercise was called for June 14-22 in 2016 specifically to test the reserve system. This event was organized for the command structures involved in calling up reservists, organizing them into units, and the various equipment storage bases designated to supply them. This time Sergey Shoigu meant business when he ordered the exercise, looking to see whether the key components of the system (mobilization, command staff, equipment bases) could be readied to turn reservists into territorial defense battalions. As in 2014, the intent was to prepare these elements for the main annual exercise.
It’s unclear what spurred the progress. The MoD either finally got the funding to realize these plans, or they got a talking to by Vladimir Putin about how 4 years in he expected to see a territorial battalion. Aleksei Nikolski of Vedomosti did some good reporting on this call up, and Roger McDermott wrote a good summary of the snap exercise back in June for Jamestown.
Undoubtedly the idea is to show the senior leadership during Kavkaz-2016 that territorial defense battalions composed of reservists, which the Kremlin has ordered countless times now since 2012, have finally become a reality. I have argued in several places that the absence of a reserve, an important bit of unfinished business from the military reforms, inherently limits Russia’s ability to sustain a large conventional conflict where it is on the offense. After four years, the MoD seems to be getting after this problem. Though the appearance of two battalions and a regiment is a watershed moment, its utility as a reserve for a force of over 300,000 is marginal. Still we should note the increasing formation of territorial defense units as part of exercises as a growing trend.
Meanwhile the rest of the reserve is technically available for the basic tasks of being formed into territorial defense units. They don’t need much and can fall in on older equipment. However, Russia’s military has a long way to go in establishing the sort of manpower base for national defense that could free up the active duty force for large scale combat operations. Having trained soldiers to replace combat losses in attrited brigades is another issue. Without a capable reserve to backstop its armed forces, the Russian military will retain a degree of brittleness when it comes to large scale offensive operations.
As always comments or corrections are welcome. (don’t suffer in silence)