This week sees the latest iteration of the annual large-scale Russian military exercises, held each year in one of the four military districts.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Robert Clark. Robert can be found on Twitter at @RobertClark87.
This September the Caucasus region hosts Kavkaz 2020.
In what have been unparalleled global circumstances for much of the year, major NATO exercises have been cancelled due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, including Defender Europe, which would have seen tens of thousands of US and NATO allied troops deploy from Germany and elsewhere across western Europe, rehearsing the reinforcement of NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank.
After standing down from the year’s major military exercises, the British Army have only recently restarted mission specific pre-deployment training for upcoming operations, including that for the UN mission to Mali scheduled for the end of this year. Until September, the British military was heavily involved in military aid to civil authorities combating Coronavirus in the UK.
Not such a quiet summer for Putin’s Russia. Whilst many NATO militaries were involved in the domestic mass-testing of their civilian populations, helping to transport emergency supplies and assisting civil authorities in keeping law and order, the Russian military spent the summer months ramping up their preparations for the Kavkaz 2020 exercise whilst its population was left to grapple with the pandemic.
As other European countries considered how to begin easing lockdown restrictions in July, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a snap combat readiness exercise of Russian troops. This involved 149,755 service personnel, 26,820 pieces of heavy equipment, 414 aircraft and 106 warships and support vessels of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. The scale of these exercises, which covered 35 training grounds and 17 marine ranges, violated international law.
A signatory to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia is bound by the Vienna document, which stipulates that military exercises involving more than 13,000 troops be recorded in advance to provide adequate notice for external invitations and compliance inspections. This was not received by the OSCE, and is a habitually reoccurring legal violation by Russia which seemingly goes unpunished.
The Russian Ministry of Defence stated that the large-scale snap exercise was to assess the ability of the Armed Forces providing security in the Caucasus region, where ‘serious terrorist threats persist’, and to prepare for upcoming Caucasus 2020 strategic command and staff training exercise. This comes despite a very little credible terrorist threat to the region, and has resulted in neighbouring Ukraine expressing concern over Moscow’s true intentions; large-scale troop deployments to Ukraine’s border in 2014, listed as snap inspections, preceded Russia’s invasion of the country in 2014.
Once the snap exercises testing the mobilisation readiness for Kavkaz 2020 were completed, there was a combined fires and C2 exercise in mid-August, tying in the final elements ready for this year’s largest Russian military exercise currently underway. Over 400 tactical episodes tested and refined integrated combined-arms capabilities hard-learned in Syria, and set the conditions for the Russian armed forces to develop their own version of multi-domain operations during Kavkaz 2020.
As well as the significant military preparations going into this exercise, Russia has also been busy cultivating regional allies and partners to take part in the Caucasus manoeuvres, drawing on diplomatic channels with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) states, a loosely constructed and often fragmented Eurasian security alliance established to counter NATO. China, Pakistan, Iran, and until recently India (who withdrew due to ongoing tensions across the Actual Line of Control with China) among other central Asian states, are all sending troop delegations to take part. Worryingly for NATO, Turkey was amongst those first invited, and is indeed sending a contingent.
Turkey’s involvement in this year’s Russian exercise should not come as a total surprise. Since agreeing to work closer with each other in Syria’s ongoing civil war after December 2019, Ankara and Moscow have developed a mutually beneficial relationship. In the event of a land conflict in Europe, Russia would need guaranteed access to the Bosporus Strait for its Black Sea fleet to break out into the Mediterranean and beyond.
Similarly, Turkey has begun to view Russia as a political ally, if not the geopolitically useful one as Russia does Turkey. With the EU’s stalled progression talks for Turkish membership, Ankara quickly accepted the status of dialogue partner for the largely authoritarian membership of the Chinese and Russian dominated SCO in 2012. Two days after the European Parliament voted unanimously to suspend accession negotiations with Ankara in November 2016, Turkey was granted the chairmanship of the SCO Energy Club for 2017, making it the first country to chair a club in the organisation without full membership status.
Against this backdrop of stalled EU membership cloaked in negative connotations from Brussels, versus an accommodating Russia and China, Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly stated his potential desire to join the SCO as a full member. Whilst some commentators lambast Turkey on several fronts, including its questionable human rights record and reoccurring restrictions on civil and political freedoms, the cosying up to Russia by NATO’s second largest military (Europe’s largest) is not in the alliance’s interests whatsoever.
Last year’s decision by Turkey to go ahead and purchase Russian-made S-400 air defence systems should have been all the warning needed by NATO of a deepening military relationship between Moscow and Ankara. The S-400 is not only incompatible with NATO systems, it presents enormous military security concerns. In addition to reducing interoperability with alliance members using NATO systems, it affords Russia the opportunity to render useless Turkey’s air defences in times of conflict, through Russia’s considerable technical experience and capability to infiltrate, degrade, and ultimately defeat through cyber and EW its own S-400 systems operated by Turkey. More worryingly in times of a wider conflict, there is the concern that Turkey’s purchase will jeopardise the integrity of NATO’s F-35 stealth fighters.
Nor is this budding relationship strictly limited to Russian-Turkish defence relations; Turkey recently broke ground on its first nuclear power plant that will in fact be Russian made, due to come online in 2023. Just at the precise moment in history in which the west has learnt it needs to decouple from its relationship with China in critical national infrastructure, Turkey is becoming increasingly militarily and politically entangled in another authoritarian web, and one which is increasingly apparent as a threat to western Europe as a whole, and to NATO in particular.