By Karlis Neretnieks (Ret MG), chairman Department I

Russia´s military capabilities are rising fast. The exercise Zapad 2013 clearly shows that the Russian Armed Forces have left the deplorable state they were in some ten years ago, and that the lessons learned from the Georgia conflict in 2008 are being implemented. The new command structure with Strategic Commands and leaner tactical units is being tested. It is not yet perfect, but Zapad 2013 will give valuable lessons.

When looking at an exercise it should be born in mind that the overall scenario is less important when assessing the capabilities of a military organisation, or what kind of intentions a country´s political leadership might have. Scenarios and intentions can change fast – capabilities are built over a long time – many years. It is by looking at what really took place – what kind of actions did the different units really conduct and how they were coordinated – that you get a clue of what kind of operations Russia will be able to mount in the future.

To begin with the Exercise was much larger than announced beforehand. From the beginning the figure of participants was set at approximately 12 000. After a while it rose to some 45 000, including 20 000 interior troops. To this should be added some 2 500 sailors, on 30 ships, in the Northern Fleet. Probably were also other units parts of the exercise, exercising inside Russia at the time. Some sources mention the total number of participants approaching 70 000. It is not a easy task to coordinate all these activities.
Looking at specifics that occurred during the exercise, some merit a comment.

The normal task of interior troops is to protect mobilization and to hunt down irregular units. The large number of these units participating could point at two aims: gear up the mobilization system and to meet the threat constituted by Special Forces – an asset that probably is an important part of NATO´s arsenal in case of a conflict in Eastern Europe.

The use of Belorussian troops as an amphibious landing force from hoover craft, shows not just the level of integration between the Russian and Belorussian armed forces, it also should raise some concerns about Russian capacity to conduct landing operations. They should not just be linked to the number of dedicated amphibious units.

The air defence forces trained to intercept approaching bombers with a fighter escort. Very clearly a task connected with a conventional war. The same goes for the amphibious landings supported by ship-to-shore bombardments.

The use of UAV`s for target identification and damage assessment, both for the artillery and for ground attack aircraft, point at a quite high level of sophistication when it comes to fighting a modern war. The extensive use of well protected communication systems, both by Russian as well as Belorussian units, is also an import step in enhancing the ability to fight in an environment where electronic warfare is an important part.

Live firing with long range systems as Smerch and especially Iskander, combined with the use of UAV´s, show an increased capability for “Deep Strike” with ground based systems. This should be disturbing for anyone contemplating to use fixed installations as harbours and airfields within the range of these systems. For example NATO, when considering how to reinforce the Baltic States in case of a crisis.

The mobilization of reservists in the St. Petersburg area was of course a test if the system works, but it should also lead to some thoughts about the size of the Russian military. It is far too easy to fall in to the trap of just counting regular units, and also to assume that only state of the art units are useful in a future war. The latter depends entirely on who is the opponent.

Altogether we see a rapidly increasing Russian capability to mount large scale, complex, military operations in its neighbourhood, coordinated with operations in other areas. It would be a mistake to see this just a problem for the Baltic States. It should have implications for most of Russia´s neighbours, and also for other parties interested in the security and stability in the Baltic Sea region.