Moscow Increasingly Ready for Major Military Confrontation
In the last several years, the Russian military has drastically increased its battle readiness in apparent preparation for a possible major conflict with an opposing massive ground force (see EDM, September 29, 2016; December 6, 2017; January 15, 2019). The massive buildup was first publicly reported in September 2016 by first deputy defense minister and chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov. He discussed the issue in a briefing to Russian journalists following the conclusion of the Kavkaz 2016 military exercise which was centered on Crimea and the Black Sea region. Kavkaz 2016 has since been overlapped by even larger Russian war games, but in 2016 they were the biggest such maneuvers since the 1980s. In 2016, Gerasimov told journalists that front-line combat units—so-called battalion tactical groups (BTG)—will be primarily manned by contract soldiers to increase their battle readiness and will be supported by new special logistical field units. According to Gerasimov, at the time of the Kavkaz 2016 exercise, the Russian Land Forces together with the Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) had 66 standing BTGs. These units are reinforced battalions with additional armor (tanks), heavy guns, other artillery and multiple-rocket launch systems (MRLS), anti-aircraft capabilities, sapper or pioneer detachments, and other auxiliaries that may be added in accordance with possible specific missions. A typical Russian BTG is 800–900 men strong. The BTG as a basic fighting unit appeared within the Russian military organization during the Chechen wars. Because a BTG is reinforced with armor, firepower and added capabilities, it can be deployed in battle separately or easily merged with other BTGs to form flexible task forces. In September 2016, Gerasimov disclosed plans to double the number of standing BTGs to 125 by 2018 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 15, 2016).
In September 2018, while promoting the massive Vostok 2018 war games, Gerasimov proudly announced, “There are 126 permanently battle-ready BTGs in the army and the VDV, manned by contract soldiers,” with two or three BTGs in each regiment or brigade (Mil.ru, September 6, 2018). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in contrast, has deployed four multinational BTG-type units across the Baltic republics and in Poland to deter the Russian military.
Most recently, in March 2019, Russia’s minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu, addressed a meeting of the Duma (lower chamber of parliament) defense committee to tout the major achievements of his (and Gerasimov’s) tenure leading the military establishment since November 2012. Inter alia, Shoigu boasted about the establishment of 136 permanently battle-ready BTGs. The defense minister added that almost all Russian army commanders down to the regimental level have battle experience. Shoigu did not elaborate whether these Russian military commanders had acquired their battle experience during tours of service in Syria, where Russia has been officially engaged since September 2015, or if this battle experience also included unofficial deployments in the Donbas warzone, in eastern Ukraine (Redstar.ru, March 13, 2019).
Shoigu told the Duma defense committee about the deployment, since 2012, of 109 new Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), 108 new submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), “over a thousand” new and modernized aircraft, thousands of tanks and other armor, ten brigades of new Iskander missiles and lots of other weapons, including reconnaissance drones (Redstar.ru, March 13). Accumulated stockpiles of military hardware were a typical feature of the Soviet military during the Cold War, but the battle readiness of the old Red Army did not match its size or the vast financial expenditures on its development and upkeep. The Soviet army was not designed to go to war without the mass mobilization of tens of millions of reservist soldiers and officers. The acute deficit of standing battle-ready forces was a major handicap that undermined Soviet war efforts during the Afghan conflict, from 1979 to 1989; and the Russian military inherited the same problem during the Chechen wars (1994–1996, 1999–2000). The present Russian military seems to have learned the lesson and is now earnestly preparing to fight a major ground war using standing armed forces, without the need for a massive mobilization of reservists. Of course, forming and maintaining 136 standing BTGs is costly and makes military sense only if a major armed encounter of continental proportions seems imminent and could begin without much prior notice or mobilization.
Both Moscow and Washington have announced the suspension of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which may officially be scrapped in August, after the mandatory six-month waiting period passes. Both sides have accused the other of violating the terms of the INF, and both have rejected the other’s denunciations. The only arms control treaty still standing between a potentially unlimited and highly dangerous Russian-U.S. arms race is the 2010 New START nuclear arms limitation treaty, which is itself scheduled to expire in February 2021. New START may be prolonged once, for five years, by mutual agreement, thus avoiding the cumbersome process of ratification in the U.S. Senate. But the U.S. State Department has said the Donald Trump administration has not yet decided whether it will seek to prolong this treaty. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in turn, has demanded that both sides must begin negotiations; and more importantly, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the Pentagon of cheating in the implementation of nuclear arms cuts proscribed by New START, insisting that these alleged transgressions must be rectified before any prolongation may be agreed (Kommersant, March 21). Moscow’s demand makes the prolongation of New START highly unlikely, as accusations fly in both directions and tensions between Russia and the U.S. continue to rise.
As the nuclear arms control regime continues to erode, raw Cold War–era nuclear deterrence may again come to dominate the U.S.-Russian security relationship. And yet, nuclear deterrence does not require 136 standing BTGs, only the deployment of additional ICBMs, long-range cruise missiles and other similar weapons. A vast standing army deployed by one side threatens to trigger a serious conventional confrontation. The CEO of the Ukrainian natural gas monopoly Naftogaz, Andrei Kobolev, recently announced that Russian Gazprom is sending out notices to its European customers that it will fully terminate gas transit trough the Ukrainian pipeline system as of January 1, 2020. This could be a prelude to war, Kobolev warned (Rambler.ru, March 20). A major escalation of the conflict in Ukraine—if it indeed happens—may in turn trigger direct clashes or skirmishes between Russian and Western militaries, if the present policy of brinksmanship spirals out of control.
Dr. Pavel E. Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta as well as a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He served as senior research officer in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, from where he received his Ph.D. Dr. Felgenhauer has published widely on Russian foreign and defense policies, military doctrine, arms trade and the military-industrial complex.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.