4 February 2019

Russia trains for war

Russian military exercises have become increasingly extensive during the last ten years, according to a report from FOI. Although Russia previously focused on managing small-scale conflicts, it now practices how to start and conduct large-scale war.

Russian military

Staff work during the exercise Vostok 2018. Photo: Vadim Savitsky/Getty Images.

The Russian ministry of defence announced in 2017 that approximately 10,000 Russian soldiers participated in a strategic exercise in western Russia. In 2018 300,000 were gathered for the corresponding exercise in the eastern parts of the country. But it is not the figures themselves that are interesting, says Johan Norberg, Deputy Research Director for Security Policy at FOI, in Kista.

“What is important is what they are doing. They have a lot of personnel. They have a lot of materiel, even if much of it is old and from the Soviet period. But the exercises build capability, that is, units that can carry out assigned missions on combat operations,” says Johan Norberg.

Expanded scale

The Swedish Ministry of Defence commissioned the report, “Training for War – Russia’s Strategic-level Military Exercises 2009–2017,” which deals with Russia’s strategic military exercises. These are conducted on an annual basis and concern the ability to wage war across a war theatre i.e. large parts of a continent. Civilian authorities and other segments of society are also involved to see how they can assist the armed forces.

“Russia is preparing itself to be able to fight a regional and possibly long and drawn-out war, for example against China or NATO.”

The report is based on open Russian sources, primarily the Russian Ministry of Defence. They create the impression that the scale of the exercises has increased from 2009 to 2018.

“They have long conducted strategic-level exercises in term of the ambition for command and control. What is striking is that since 2013 these exercises are increasingly involving matching numbers of troops and equipment in the field.”

Battle readiness sometimes affects civilian authorities

Russia’s armed forces are also determinedly improving their combat readiness, which is to say their ability to shift from everyday peacetime activities to being able to carry out assigned missions on wartime operations. Such large-scale combat readiness checks also occasionally affect civil authorities. This reflects a comprehensive approach where other government agencies and ministries are to support the military in wartime, according to Johan Norberg.

During the last ten years, the country has used military force in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.

“Russia is obviously prepared to use military means. It is thus important to understand how, and in the worst case, for what, they might be used. Military exercises provide a hint of this,” says Johan Norberg.