Yes, Russia's Military Is Training for a 'Mega War.' That's What Militaries Do.

Image: Competitors in the Tank Biathlon event of the Russian-hosted International Army Games, 2016. Russian government photo.

Snap drills weren't a sign that Putin is about to march on Kyiv, but the fear they provoked is a reminder that Europe's security architecture needs an update.

The latest series of military exercises in Russia have unnerved its Western neighbors, who are concerned that Russia may be preparing for a military campaign. The Russian military is indeed preparing for war, but that does not mean the Kremlin actually plans to initiate one anytime soon. Rather, the current and pending exercises are meant to, well, exercise the troops, for all contingencies, including worst-case scenarios, but also to send a signal to potential adversaries and “disloyal” neighbors.

These countries, of course, remember vividly how less than a month after conducting the Kavkaz-2008, or Caucasus-2008, exercises in July of that year Russian armed forces marched into South Ossetia to rout Georgia as it attempted to retake its separatist province by force. Then, in spring 2014, Russia’s military-political leadership used one of the so-called surprise selective checks of its armed forces’ combat readiness to deploy the troops needed to facilitate the taking of Crimea.

No wonder each time Moscow decides to hold a major snap check or regular drill along Russia’s western or southwestern flank, such maneuvers generate concern in some of the countries located along those borders. The latest surprise check—launched August 25 on territories comprising Russia’s Southern, Western and Central military districts—was no exception.

Russia’s Defense Ministry claims that the ongoing inspection of combat readiness of eight thousand soldiers and their equipment, including units located in Crimea and South Ossetia, is needed to ascertain whether the forces are ready for the strategic Kavkaz-2016 exercise, set to begin in mid-September. Moreover, even though the declared number of servicemen participating in the August 25-31 snap inspection is less than the nine thousand that makes military drills “subject to notification” under OSCE’s so-called Vienna Document, Russia’s MoD said it had nonetheless notified military attaches posted in Moscow about the exercise. The ministry has also invited foreign military attaches to attend Kavkaz-2016.

Russian assurances about the inspection’s goals have failed to assuage concerns in Kyiv, Brussels and Washington. Even before the latest snap check began, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko expressed concerns that Russia may be planning a “full-scale invasion.” The United States has also voiced reservations: “We hope that Russia will comply with all relevant obligations and commitments under existing agreements on arms control and confidence measures to provide their neighbors with guarantees and transparency concerning the scale and nature of these activities," Pentagon representative Michelle Baldanza was quoted as saying Aug. 25, the first day of the check. Some Western media outlets chose to express their concern over Russia’s latest war-gaming in much starker terms: “Putin launches massive military operation amid fears Russia wants mega war,” screamed a headline in Britain’s Express tabloid.

As stated above, I believe the Russian military is indeed preparing for an all-out war. However, that is what generals in all countries do. It is their job to prepare for worst-case scenarios and large-scale strategic exercises are meant to test the military’s readiness for such a development. However, that does not mean that Russia’s military-political leadership necessarily wants that scenario to materialize. You do not invite foreign military attaches accredited in your capital to attend strategic drills if you want to launch another covert campaign on the scale of Crimea or a “mega-war” against NATO. Observers can, of course, be kept out of areas of covert deployments, but it would take an exceptional degree of arrogance to turn an exercise to which you have invited diplomats into an act of aggression. Nor do you announce the location and scale of drills that you mean to use to conceal preparations for war almost a year before they take place (which is the case with Caucasus-2016, announced in December 2015, giving your competitors plenty of time to train their technical and human intelligence assets onto the area—not to mention the coverage from local Twitterati.