Russian troops have been involved this week in exercises preparing for “a time of war.” At the direction of President Vladimir Putin, more than 45,000 troops have been taking part in a series of military maneuvers to test how prepared the country’s army is for future combat.
The “snap combat readiness check” of the Russian Aerospace Forces took place earlier this week, with Moscow hailing it a success, but according to Russian military expert Dr. Katarzyna Zysk, it is also a way to show the world just how powerful Russia is militarily, and in the past, such exercises have even been used as a cover for troop movements in the lead up to an attack.
At the behest of Putin, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Russian military, the air force conducted a range of drills on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week “to evaluate readiness of the control agencies and troops to carry out combat training tasks,” Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu explained.
“Special attention should be paid to combat alert, deployment of air defense systems for a time of war, and air groupings’ readiness to repel the aggression,” Shoigu added.
The drills involved over 45,000 troops and around 1,700 pieces of military hardware, including 150 aircraft and 200 anti-aircraft missile systems. As well as testing offensive capabilities, defensive systems were also under scrutiny. Russian news agency Tass reports that a missile defense system in Moscow successfully intercepted and destroyed test missiles aimed at the capital.
On Thursday, the British air force (RAF) scrambled two of its Typhoon fighter jets to escort two Russian Blackjack bombers that had entered airspace designated as an “area of interest” by the U.K.
The two bombers reportedly flew around Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland before being intercepted by the French military, who escorted them down the coast of France and over to Spanish military. It was not confirmed whether these bombers formed part of the wider military exercise.
Is this unusual?
Not particularly. Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo, and an expert on Russian military, told VICE News that “such exercises are not out of the ordinary. Russia has devoted special attention to increasing combat readiness as one of the key areas in its large-scale modernization efforts.”
Indeed, in recent years Moscow has sharply increased the scale and complexity of military exercises, particularly since Shoigu took control of the Ministry of Defense in November 2012.
This isn’t even close to being the biggest military exercise carried out in Russia. In 2013, one drill involved 160,000 troops, and a year later, another exercise took place involving 155,000 troops. During 2014, more than 200,000 soldiers took part in simultaneous exercises across the Arctic, the European part of Russia, the Central and Eastern Military Districts and the Pacific Fleet.
What is the point of such exercises?
On the face of it, the snap inspection carried out this week aimed to check combat readiness, as well as test changes implemented to the structure of the Russian armed forces, its operations, weapons, and technology.
However, there may also have been other reasons for this drill.
Russia likes to put its military might on display. Ever since sanctions prevented Western countries from selling weapons and arms to the Kremlin — following the annexation of Crimea — Russia has sought to make sure the rest of the world knows it is not a spent force.
Such tests can “convey a political signal by demonstrating strength and exerting pressure, as well as provoke and test reactions and perceptions from potential adversaries,” Zysk said.
Russia has also used such exercises in the past to cover its tracks. “Although there is no indication that this exercise could lead to anything more, in the past Russia used such exercises as a cover for a more significant military action,” Zysk said. “Russia has a track record of using military exercises as cover for massive troop movements in the run-up to an attack — giving it the advantage of surprise.” We saw such a cover-up before the war in Georgia in 2008 and again in the attack on Ukraine in 2014, according to Zysk.
This all comes at a time when Russian relations with NATO and several western governments are at breaking point. “Given the tensions and uncertainty about the intent behind Russia foreign policy in many European capitals … such large-scale surprise exercises amplify therefore the sense of insecurity,” Zysk said.