A massive strategic military exercise in troop control has been underway at the headquarters level in six Russian military districts since January 20. This is how Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, has officially defined it. On Tuesday, he held a special press conference in Moscow to react to articles in the Russian press on this military exercise. They featured claims like "Russia is entering a nuclear war", "Russia will wage a nuclear war against itself," and "Russia's largest war games begin."
The general called these articles "fiction" and tried on behalf of the Defence Ministry to clarify the situation. It transpired that this was "a routine, annual, planned exercise, by no means the largest of its kind, and it will last until military control bodies and troops accomplish their training missions".
So, there was no sensation.
However, the harder General Baluyevsky tried to refute the allegations published in Moscow newspapers, the clearer it became that the media had reported quite accurate - and curious - information, with the exception of some typical exaggerations and technical mistakes that a non-expert could be forgiven for making. Let us look at the scale of the training exercise.
All the combat arms are taking part in the military exercise, codenamed Global Shield. This means the ground forces, the navy and air force, as well as the strategic deterrence forces, including the strategic missile forces, space command, and the 12th main department of the General Staff, which is responsible for nuclear warheads and charges. General of the Army Anatoly Kvashnin, Chief of the General Staff, is exercising direct command over the exercises, while Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov is in overall command. It has not been ruled out that at some stage Supreme Commander-in Chief, Russian President Vladimir Putin may assume command of the exercise. General Baluyevsky did not tell the press when exactly this would happen.
However, it is obvious that this may happen in mid-February, when ground-based strategic missiles are to be launched from the Plesetsk test range and ballistic missiles from nuclear submarines in the Barents and White Seas. The missiles cannot be launched without the Supreme Commander in Chief, as he must unlock the signal transmission circuit of his "black briefcase". The USA knows exactly when this day will be, as under the terms of START-1, which is in force until 2009, Moscow has informed about it in advance. It has not informed other countries, though, and nor has it invited observers.
Under the 1999 Vienna document on confidence-building measures and security, such notification and invitations should be issued if "at least 9,000 troops, including support troops" or "250 combat tanks or 500 combat armoured vehicles or 250 towed or self-propelled artillery guns" are involved in an exercise. General Baluyevsky said that this many troops were not talking part in the present exercise. Those that are involved act as forces to carry our various training missions assigned to them.
Which missions was he talking about? In response to this question, General Baluyevsky advised those present to read Chapter 3 of Pressing Tasks of the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on which Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov reported at a Moscow conference on October 2. It is entitled "Assessment of Threats" and all the actions of the command of the war games and the involved means and forces are simply used to neutralise these threats, first of all, external ones.
General Baluyevsky did not specify where these threats might come from. He even said, "there is no suggestion whatsoever that the enemy is the United States, European countries or NATO". He simply stated, "the enemy is imaginary". However, he noted that the aim of the exercise was to work out ways to prevent military pressure being applied to Russia and to check the ability of general-purpose permanently ready units to be transferred over large distances and immediately start fulfilling their missions. Another feature was to "conduct research and practical experiments on the use of potential means of strategic influence capable of counteracting missile defence systems."
Which country is developing national missile defence systems is common knowledge. General Baluyevsky did not conceal his view about the US decision to create low-yield nuclear warheads and Washington's refusal to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. In his opinion, they are a destabilising factor.
"The USA is trying to turn nuclear weapons into battlefield weapons and an instrument for solving military tasks and lower the threshold of their use, which cannot but cause our concern," he said. "Should we not react to this, at least at the headquarters level? I'm sure that we should and we are doing that". The general pointed out that the Russian army was not trying to scare anyone, but was doing what the military is supposed to do: prepare for a potential conflict.
Even without this statement, it is clear that Russia and its armed forces are now showing the country and the rest of the world that it is ready to fulfil, even with the low level of budget allocations for combat training, the tasks set in "the new military doctrine"; namely, they are demonstrating their strategic deterrence potential, and a "readiness to demonstrate military presence and resolve to use military force".
Lastly, it is clear that at the height of the presidential election campaign, this kind of strategic military exercise held at the headquarters level cannot be routine, whatever generals say officially.