BACKGROUND: On October 3, the operational-strategic exercises (operativno-strategicheskikh ucheniy) of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) commenced with its first stage in Armenia. Boyevoye Bratstvo 2017 (Combat Brotherhood 2017) as the series of exercises were designated, also involved CSTO forces rehearsing peacekeeping operations in Kazakhstan, concluding with an antiterrorist stage in Tajikistan in November; each of these exercise elements mainly drew upon the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (Кollektivnyye Sily Operativnogo Reagirovaniya –KSOR).
Boyevoye Bratstvo 2017 resembled the format of the Zapad exercise, though broken into three stages in Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and involved a parallel exercise for CSTO intelligence and reconnaissance troops held in Southern Military District (MD). Indeed, the entire CSTO exercise was placed under the command of the Southern Joint Strategic Command. The overall reported force strength for Boyevoye Bratstvo 2017 was 12,000, like Zapad just below the threshold of the OSCE Vienna Agreement and likely to have been considerable larger in reality. The ten-day exercise in Armenia, Vzaimodeystviye 2017, featured forces from all CSTO members (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan) rehearsing a collective response to a “terrorist” incursion into one member state. Officially the total force strength was 2,500 but this is most likely an underestimation, since the Armenia-Russia united group of forces was reportedly involved and Russia’s 102nd base in the country has 3,300 personnel. However, the deployment of KSOR, larger-scale force groupings, aspects of the combat support used and reference to a “conventional enemy” in the exercise scenario suggest Vzaimodeystviye 2017 focused on interstate conflict.
According to sources in Russia’s Southern MD, the exercise worked on interoperability of forces involving tactical episodes using motorized rile, tank and artillery, airborne units and combat aviation. Air defense units were tasked with locating enemy UAVs, while reconnaissance units from the 102nd base in Gyumri used their own UAVs to detect sabotage groups and correct fire damage as part of the reconnaissance-strike system. Operational success was also attributed to use of electronic warfare (EW) forces, engineering troops, communications and medical, as well as nuclear, chemical and biological units. These defense ministry forces were also aided by specialist groups consisting of police, National Guard, Emergency Ministry troops and a unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Armenia.
Nerushimoye Bratstvo 2017 (Unbreakable Brotherhood) was conducted in southern Kazakhstan, October 16-20, and focused on the use of KSOR in a peacekeeping role. Transport and assault helicopters were deployed to Kazakhstan during the exercise from Novosibirsk in Central MD. The senior leadership of the CSTO specified that the scenario modelled a peacekeeping operation by the collective forces deployed on the territory of a non-member state. This may well have had in mind ongoing and future Russian-led peacekeeping missions in Syria, alongside Moscow airing the idea of a limited UN mandated peacekeeping operation in Donbas to protect OSCE personnel. Valery Semerikov, CSTO deputy secretary-general, said that if the political decision was reached then CSTO forces could well be used in such a peacekeeping role in these theaters.
The official number of personnel in Nerushimoye Bratstvo 2017 was 1,500 and the exercise worked on the practical skills of commanders and staff officer to prepare a collective peacekeeping operation and to enhance the interoperability of the CSTO units. This extended into practicing negotiating skills, escorting the delivery of humanitarian supplies, carrying out duties at checkpoints and observation posts, in addition to offensive actions such as blocking and destroying training camps for militants and generally improving field training. Additionally the exercise in Kazakhstan included specialist forces conducting psychological operations (PSYOPS) and information warfare (IW). The level of sophistication involved and the timing of the peacekeeping exercise imply serious consideration by Moscow and other CSTO capitals to launching such a mission in the future.
IMPLICATIONS: The CSTO operational-strategic exercises Boyevoye Bratstvo 2017 were conducted in three stages to rehearse Russian-led military intervention in conflicts erupting in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. These were framed under a unified exercise concept, with attention focused on the elite CSTO KSOR; it tested command and control, interoperability among national forces, support measures and inter-agency cooperation between national security forces. The forces were placed under the command of Russia’s Southern MD, which functions as a Joint Strategic Command during military operations.
Boyevoye Bratstvo 2017 rehearsed a range of plausible interventions in these theaters, primarily linked to terrorist-related themes. However, in the case of the Armenian theater, the conduct of the exercise and the combat units and supporting units suggest a conventional adversary was envisaged. Equally, the peacekeeping exercise in Kazakhstan appeared to ready CSTO forces to deploy beyond their area of responsibility either in Syria or Ukraine, if mandated to do so. The KSOR deployment to the exercise in Tajikistan in November will focus more on insurgency spreading into Central Asia from instability in Afghanistan.
In all of these cases it appears that the underlying message is that Moscow wants to avoid acting alone and seeks a CSTO umbrella for future operations. Despite this, Russian forces would clearly form the backbone of such a collective force grouping, with overall command placed under one of its Joint Strategic Commands.
The culmination of Russia’s summer combat training appears to have come in two stages, with parallel exercises around the time of Zapad 2017, followed by Boyevoye Bratstvo 2017 as an additional operational-strategic exercise. Each of these show levels of concern on the part of Russia’s General Staff regarding the type and location of future conflicts on Russia’s periphery coupled with a search for reliable allies.
Moscow seems buoyed by the operational experience its Armed Forces gained in Ukraine and Syria, and wants to infuse such confidence into the CSTO for possible support in fresh operations. The forces participating in the CSTO operational-strategic exercises imply preparation for a broad spectrum of operations in the South Caucasus or Central Asia. This includes more emphasis on combat support supplied by EW forces, extending across rehearsing the use and application of IW and PSYOPS in differing theaters and conflict types. There was also a renewed focus upon exploiting UAVs and in countering these on the part of enemy forces.
CONCLUSIONS: Moscow sees potential threats to Russia’s security in its south-western and southern strategic directions. Yet the modelling of a role for KSOR in peacekeeping operations beyond the territories of its members is also a signal of Moscow’s political confidence, as well as an indicator of a desire to avoid unilateral actions if possible. Boyevoye Bratstvo 2017, coming so soon after Zapad 2017, deserves closer attention, as it serves to illustrate advances in Russia’s application of military power and serious political consideration to using it when needed on its periphery. Moscow will try to convince its allies that risks are manageable.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N. McDermott is a Research Associate, the Institute of Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies (MECACS), University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Image source: By kremlin.ru accessed on 11.17. 2017