On September 29 the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka attended the end of joint military exercises at the Obuz-Lyasnousky firing range in Belarus. The two stage "Zapad 2009" (West 2009) began on September 8, involving a total of 12,500 servicemen, including 6,000 from Russia, and 40 aircraft among 200 items of military hardware. Medvedev said that such exercises will be held every two years in order to promote Russian and Belarusian military interoperability and form a high-quality joint defense system. Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Russian Chief of the General Staff noted the importance of the exercises: "We have not conducted anything like that in terms of composition and scale for a long time" (ITAR-TASS, September 8; Krasnaya Zvezda, September 25; Rossiya TV, September 28). Minsk invited observers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine to attend the event. However, the exercise which was developed jointly between the Belarusian and Russian defense ministries was described by Medvedev as "purely defensive," though to many western observers it appeared to be a regressive step: the exercise scenario concentrated on repelling a NATO-led attack on Belarus (EDM, September 28).
A more plausible rationale was offered by Lieutenant-General Sergey Skokov, the Chief of the Main Staff of the Russian Ground Forces, who noted that the country faces "potential threats" from three strategic directions: the west, east and south. They each represent distinct type of threats ranging from facing a mass conventional force on its eastern border to combating insurgents or terrorism from the south, to facing a highly technologically advanced "enemy" from the west. In describing the type of threat Russian might face on its western flank, he essentially described network centric warfare which is the hallmark of United States and NATO operations. The enemy would not advance along a traditional frontline, but attempt to outflank Russian forces in order to minimize its losses, capitalizing on an information advantage, which Skokov observed was the pattern followed by U.S. armed forces in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, given the technology lag between Russian and western militaries, it is unlikely that Skokov or any other Russian general believes that their armed forces can currently conduct non-contact warfare. Skokov used the experience of Russian forces in recent exercises to suggest that they must prioritize the development of "mobile forces" (ITAR-TASS, September 23).
He also said that it is in order to train command echelons and troops in these areas that the "Osen 2009" (Autumn 2009) strategic maneuvers were staged, which started in June (Kavkaz, Zapad and the Ladoga 2009 operational-strategic exercises). In other words, the aim of developing "mobile groups of forces" is internally promoted by staging such drills; the interpretation which the Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich derived from Zapad 2009, that it was in essence a political message to Poland from the Kremlin, is in this sense misleading (Interfax, September 23, www.charter97.org, September 25). This is a traditional threat perception being recast during an internal Russian military transformation, and it is primarily about forming the forces that the country will need in the future. What few Russian generals are saying publicly is that by abandoning the mass mobilization principle this year, and transferring to permanent readiness formations, it is harder to maintain the pretence that the military mainly exists to deter or repel a future attack from NATO.
According to General Skokov, recent Russian military exercises provide an opportunity for the "new look" armed forces to be evaluated and tested. More specifically, as the combat capability of the new brigades emerging within the military are assessed additional proposals are being developed to change guidelines and the legal regulatory documents, while minor adjustments are made at unit level to enhance overall lethality (ITAR-TASS, September 23). General Makarov was unequivocal about the objectives of Zapad 2009: "We have set a number of important objectives for these maneuvers. First of all, we must test the transition to the new armed forces command system, mostly based on the move to network centric warfare. We want to see the new air defense and air force command system in action and also test the command system of the coalition force of the Republic of Belarus and Russia" (Interfax, September 29).
Indeed, given the recent turbulence in bilateral relations including Lukashenka delaying signing the agreement of establishing the new Collective Operational Response Force (CORF) under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as well as the differences relating to trade and energy issues, the exercise appeared partly aimed at strengthening the union state. The Belarusian Defense Minister Colonel-General Leanid Maltsau explained: "This exercise is a logical continuation of training during recent years. Its primary goal is to test the functioning of the joint defense system of the allied state and its capabilities of fulfilling the task of maintaining regional and national security" (www.belta.by, September 29).
Staging this joint exercise, attended by both presidents, given the recent bilateral tensions and an apparent lapse in military cooperation, served to symbolically unite Minsk and Moscow, even if only against a hypothetical "western threat." Vladimir Evseev from the Center for International Security of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow observed: "This joint exercise will enable us to become closer in such a sensitive area as security" (Russia Today, September 28).
Neither the rhetoric surrounding Zapad 2009 nor the cautious response by the Russian government over U.S. missile defense plans has stressed too strongly an "anti-western" stance. Zapad 2009 appears to be part of an evolving and internal debate within the Russian defense and security establishment. As the structure of the armed forces was overhauled in 2009, progressing towards implementing the "new look" military, old thinking in relation to the Western threat is being adapted, but it is unclear whether this was intended to convey any aggressive foreign policy message to the West. Those arguing within the military that the West poses a possible threat to Russia, must now be gradually won over first to the view that the reformed military can be deployed against a NATO-led intervention in Belarus, while simultaneously the "Western threat" concept is being used as a means to maximize support for the reform and modernization of the Russian armed forces.
Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) with his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, observe Zapad 2009 joint military exercises