Did Russia’s Military Exercises Go as Well as Putin Says They Did?

July 24, 2013
Sergei Shoigu and Vladimir Putin/AFP/Getty Images

Russia recently concluded the largest war games in its history. The Defense Ministry stated that over 160,000 troops, 5,000 tanks and armored vehicles (the Ministry originally reported only 1,000), 70 ships and 130 aircraft. The size and scale of the exercises on paper is impressive; the simple coordination of the games is worthy of congratulation. And it seems that even Putin, who has no qualms about publicly displaying his disdain, was happy with the results, “Today we can be proud of our army.”

As I wrote last week, the war games were meant to signal Russia’s assertiveness in light of changing dynamics in the region, particularly America’s “pivot.” Additionally, the exercises were meant to showcase Russia’s modernizing military. The games allowed Russia to advertise its modern arsenal (the Pacific fleet is expected to take possession of a brand new Mistral Amphibious Assault ship, a Borey class ballistic missile submarine, and several Project 20380 Steregushchy-class corvettes in the next couple years), and its efforts to transform the military into a truly professional organization. That is why the recent drills were “snap” drills, called unexpectedly to showcase their ability to respond to real world threats.

However, it seems there are questions as to how well the military really performed and if it indeed involved the numbers advertised. Alexander Golts, one of the most respected authors on the Russian military, recently wrote an op-ed in The Moscow Times critiquing the recent military maneuvers. “This would have been a truly outstanding achievement if not for one very obvious fact: 160,000 troops did not participate in the exercises. Official Defense Ministry statements refer to only a dozen or so brigades, meaning that a maximum of only 40,000 troops were involved.”

Golts’ main argument is that is simply impossible for the number of troops that were said to be involved to actually have been. The exercises took place in the Eastern Military District which covers the area from Vladivostok and the Pacific to Central Asia. It comprises 14 army brigades that are thousands of miles apart. Besides the daunting distances between units is the almost non-existent transportation infrastructure. Additionally, by Golts’ own estimate, Russia’s army is 20% understaffed along with most soldiers being conscripts (a centerpiece of Russia’s modernization program is increasing the number of contract soldiers. However, these plans are expected to bring the total number of contract soldiers to 425,000 by 2020, meaning that for the immediate future it will still rely on conscription). These facts are hardly the stuff of an awe-inspiring military machine capable of combined operations. It’s incredible that understaffed and relatively untrained units would be able to not only overcome the distance in such a short time, but the transportation difficulties as well.

The other discrepancy is the number of tanks and armored vehicles involved. At first, the Defense Ministry stated that there were 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles involved. But, the Eastern Military District contains about 1,200 tanks and armored vehicles. This would put one tank or armored vehicle for every 160 soldiers. If Russia wants to modernize its army then that ratio is nowhere near where it should be. Apparently realizing their mistake, the Ministry revised its figures and said that the exercises would involve over 5,000 vehicles. Where, though, did it come up with 4,000 more tanks and armored vehicles? Here’s Golts: “The only way that the reported number of 5,000 could have been obtained is if the remaining 4,000 tanks, armored vehicles and self-propelled howitzers had been deployed in just two or three days’ time from Central Russia, which is impossible any way you look at it.”

Golts summation is that, “…out of a desire to impress Putin, the top brass lumped all the units of both the Eastern and Central Military Districts into one wildly inflated figure, and that most of those units never deployed anywhere or took part in any maneuvers.”

The Russian military is still struggling to emerge as a world-class professional army and to tackle the inadequacies that were made apparent during the Chechen wars and most recently in its 2008 war with Georgia.

Whatever the true numbers of the recent exercises, it is highly unlikely that they went as smoothly as Putin and the General Staff would want us to believe. The numbers simply don’t add up, and one would be hard pressed to see the reforms, started under ousted Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, having created the modern, mobile military that Putin so dearly wants.