EDF yearbook focuses on ongoing Russian Federation military development

A previous Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad in progress in 2019.
A previous Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad in progress in 2019. Source: Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/Scanpix

Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) military intelligence center has focused on security policy and military developments in Russia in its yearbook, which published Tuesday.

The EDF finds a deepening trend whereby Russia's attitude in international relations has become increasingly revisionist, emphasizing the concept of a multi-polar world, BNS reports.

This is an attempt to revise the existing, functioning system which is accepted by the international community, via foreign policy (and, if necessary, military) efforts. Unforeseen factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic have only temporarily limited this, the yearbook says.

Constitutional amendments established the legal bases of the duration of the state's regime. This has dispersed domestic political risks concerning the key issue of the state, namely how to resolve the continuation of Vladimir Putin's presidency and/or regime.

At the same time, the living standards of the bulk of the Russian populace continue to decline, which has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath.

Socio-economic difficulties, combined with a corrupt authoritarian rule, are gradually increasing the protest potential of the country, however; the regime is trying to mitigate this with apparent nationwide measures.

The past year has been turbulent in the context of the "near abroad" region, crucial to Russia. The protests that followed last August's presidential election in Belarus, the resurgence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and elections in Moldova that did not go entirely according to the scenario envisaged by Russia are all examples of this. At the same time, the changing situation can have the effect of opening up new opportunities to assert Russia's interests.

In its relations with western countries, the Russian regime has the perception that the international situation will continue to move towards a state of chaos, and that this will further be accelerated after the pandemic. As a result, the near future is unlikely to see an easing of tensions between the west and Russia.

Thought processes of both the political and military leadership are still guided by an understanding (which western actions themselves cannot change) that the main threat to the state comes from western countries.

Despite Russia''s thinking being dominated by a notion that the international environment is on a path towards greater confrontation, the strategic objective in relations with western countries is to reach a binding agreement to change the European security architecture.

As a result, Russia would maintain the right to decide on the security of its border countries, thereby undermining the influence of international institutions such as EU and NATO. 

Such an agreement is seen as the only way to escape tensions, which are usually initiated by Russia itself, the yearbook says. Among other things, it seeks to force European countries to enter into negotiations with Russia by way of demonstrating military strength, which, in the absence of other means (or due to weakness), is an important means of achieving foreign policy objectives. 

The past decade has shown that the use of force to achieve the country's foreign policy objectives is in correlation with modernization and training. This includes an increase in the quality and quantity of exercises.

Internal developments

The most important event in the Russia's domestic policy was the 2020 vote on the constitutional reform, which ended on July 1. The new constitution will allow the current president, Vladimir Putin, to remain in power until the year 2036. However, this does not mean that he will rule the country until then; Putin will be 83 years old in 2036.

Additionally, the adoption of the amendments also included providing the president with lifelong immunity, that is immunity from criminal prosecution for any possible crimes committed during his lifetime. Thus, the new constitution and its provisions seem like a guarantee for Putin in case that he decides to resign.

Russia is now more repressive than it has been at any time since the Soviet era, the yearbook says. Authorities are fighting against critically minded media, harassing peaceful protesters, arranging smearing campaigns against independent groups and suffocating the emerging civil society with fines. Various organizations are being banned or discouraged from being active, and Russian citizens associated with them are increasingly being punished.

The new law allows authorities to block access to the internet partially or completely, even in the event of unspecified security threats, and it provides the government with control over Internet traffic in the country. This will allow the Kremlin to censor information flows.

Foreign and security policy

Year after year, Moscow has increasingly been looking towards the East, strengthening its ties with China. At the same time, another major asian power center, India, is moving towards the West, strengthening ties with the U.S. If this trend continues in the long term, the two friendly countries of Russia and India could eventually end up in conflicting geopolitical and economic blocs.

In 2020, efforts were made to treat both Beijing and New Delhi as partners. At present, Russia has acted primarily as a mediator between China and India in this triangle. However, it cannot be ruled out that the long common border between Russia and China, where there are several "grey areas", could see problems between the countries in the future.

The policy pursued by Russia in the Middle East in 2020, which is likely to continue in its core aspects, has a certain peculiarity. Moscow seems to be able to hold a formal dialogue with several warring parties at the same time. For example, one day with Israel and Iran, the next with the U.S. and Hezbollah, and then with Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

Russia exerts political influence and supports strong leaders, such as Khalifa Haftar in Libya, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in return for promises of possible future economic benefits.

In other words, Russia's scope of activity includes the forming of political ties (support for parallel structures and parties or groups undermining government authority), military presence (troops, bases, arms sales), trade (direct investments, energy, tourism), diplomatic (visits and agreements) and cultural and religious ties (different diasporas of people in Israel and Syria originating from Russian territories).

Russia's presence in the Syrian port city of Tartus is concerning and will become an even greater issue if Russia is able to use economic influence in nearby Cyprus (an EU member state) to consolidate its strength, the EDF yearbook went on.

The Kremlin wants to maintain a military base in Syria, the most important country in the Middle-East for Russia, to protect its regional interests and it has sought out post-war reconstruction projects for its companies for support showed to dictator al-Assad. The first objective has been achieved by Moscow, attaining the second objective has proven to be much more difficult.

The two diplomatic visions for the reconstruction of Syria are still at odds. The West is demanding that the means of reconstruction be linked to a domestic political process that is considered legitimate, including the release of thousands of political prisoners and ensuring of security of all Syrians. Russia, for its part, wants to make reconstruction a precondition for the return of Syrian refugees.

The Kremlin has tried to push through the idea that more than six million refugees would be able to return home only if the West agrees to pay for the reconstruction of Syria. To this end, Russia sought to hold the first international conference on refugee returns in Damascus, but its coverage remained extremely modest.

One important "partner" for Russia in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus is Turkey. In the context of the Middle East, the relations were quite constructive, as both sides want some control over the conflict reminiscent of being an unimaginable chaos. Therefore, control areas were divided near the Turkish border. However, relations were moving on a course towards a conflict in both Libya and the Caucasus.

In Libya, Marshal Haftar's offensive on Tripoli failed by the Turkish drone attacks, despite the active involvement of the Russian private security company Wagner. A similar scenario was repeated in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Turkish drones used by Azerbaijan were used to exert superiority in the war against Armenia, which was using Russian weapons and tactics. However, direct clashes between the two countries seeking regional hegemony have been avoided.

Russia has especially expanded its reach in Africa. In addition to Libya, where, despite support provided to Haftar, all parties to the conflict and/or the more influential actors are being reached out to, relations with Egypt, Algeria, Mali (where the EDF regularly sends a platoon, in support of a French-led anti-terrorism operation there – ed.), the Central African Republic, Angola, Ethiopia and Sudan continue being developed.

At the end of the year, Russia and Sudan signed an agreement to establish a naval logistics center on the coast of the Red Sea for 25 years. Russia can accommodate up to four ships and 300 fighters at a time. A Sudanese port will become the first military base for the country in Africa to be built under an intergovernmental agreement; a convenient docking station for warships that can be used for both refueling and repairs will also be developed.

The port is planned to be built on a major trade route at a strategic junction of the trade route running through the Red Sea and connecting the Arab and Mediterranean waterways through the Suez Canal. At the same time, Moscow is negotiating the development of other possible bases and ports in Africa, with particularly close contacts with Egypt and Eritrea. The new port will open the gates to Africa for Russia and facilitate work in, for example, the Central African Republic, where Russian mercenaries have been operating for several years.

On the other hand, the political situation in Sudan continues to still be extremely sensitive - if the transitional government does not respond to public calls for democratization and the country's difficult past is not overcome, than the current government could fall just as the regime of Omar al-Bashir fell.

In recent years, Russia has also become Africa's leading arms supplier, surpassing traditional leaders France and the United States in the region. In 2019, Putin hosted the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, during which numerous transactions in the fields of arms industry, nuclear energy and food were signed. Most of them have yet to be implemented, but the presence of Russia has continued to grow. 

In the energy context, Algeria has a key role as the third largest gas supplier to the European Union. By securing dominance over Algeria's energy resources, Russia can increase its influence in Europe. Interest in Libya's oil reserves is another step in that direction. Russia's military influence has limited the room for Western countries to maneuver in these countries and this may ignite future conflicts.

In relations with Western countries, the focus of Russia's influence is on fossil fuels, this will likely continue to be the center of Russia's influence in the near future. The two largest energy export articles - oil and natural gas - need international economic stability to continue filling the state treasury, but they also pose difficult tasks for the interests of Western countries.

Russia will not falter in using energy as a geopolitical tool, even if this destabilizes the situation in some regions over time. A cautionary example could be the building of Nord Stream (but also of Turkish Stream) and its accompanying aspects, directly related to Russia's "near abroad" and its intention to establish power in Ukraine and Belarus.

On the other hand, Russia's dependence on gas and oil revenues motivates the Kremlin to keep prices high while maintaining significant market share on a global scale. In the long run, the global transition from fossil fuels to green and renewable energy could undermine the filling of Russia's state treasury.

The Arctic, and in particular the international shipping traffic there, could become an important factor in Russia consolidating its position and increasing its role in international trade due to Russia taking advantage of the economic consequences of climate change. As the planet warms, ice will continue to melt on Russia's Arctic coast, creating the conditions for the North Sea route to become one of the most viable alternatives to existing intercontinental sea routes.

While this route could benefit the global economy in general, it could also mean greater control exerted by Moscow over shipping, which in turn could jeopardize other countries' existing freedom of navigation, as Russia has become very vigorous in militarizing the seafront. In the long run, however, the melting of ice could allow the transit corridor to bypass Russian jurisdiction altogether.

Russia also continued to conduct cyber attacks. While the 2017 NotPetya malware attack, attributed by Western investigators to Russian military intelligence, cost the world economy an estimated 10 billion US dollars, the economic cost of further large-scale attacks is so imperceptible that it has not even been estimated. The latest announced cyber attack with more impact took place at the end of the year against US government agencies and major infrastructure companies, including Microsoft.

Exercises of the armed forces and military operations

The culmination of the year was the strategic command and control exercise Kavkaz 2020 in the Southern Military District. Due to the spread of COVID-19, there were fewer participants from abroad compared to the exercise of last year, Tsentr 2019. The Russian Ministry of Defense stated that there were nearly 80,000 participants.

It was added that, in line with the 2011 "Vienna Document", the maximum number of military personnel under one operational command was 12,900 (13,000 participants would require the involvement of external observers). As in previous years, management-staff training was preceded by strategic assurance training at 25 different training grounds and 16 aerodromes. The purpose of the deployment exercise is to practice the deployment of forces to the necessary strategic location.

The political leadership announced in the first half of the year that Russia would not hold exercises in the immediate vicinity of borders of Western states, as it sought to find common ground and take real steps to ease tensions with NATO. Despite this, a Russian-Belarusian co-operation exercise Slavic Brotherhood 2020 took place in Brest, Belarus, in September, and an exercise of the Baltic Fleet and the 6th Combined Arms Army took place in the strategic western direction (regions of Leningrad and Kaliningrad) in August.

The training was influenced by COVID-19, so the spring conscription started later than planned. On May 20, only 34,000 conscripts, or 25 percent of the total, had been sent to military service. By June 30, there were as many conscripts as usual. In total, the number of conscripts was more or less the same as last year - 135,000 in the spring and 128,000 in the fall. The share of contract staff has remained stable over the last few years, with almost 400,000 professional military service members.

The May 9 victory day parade marking the end of World War Two was postponed to June 24 due to the pandemic. Parade rehearsals, however, did not follow antiviral measures and, according to unconfirmed data, a large number of infections resulted from this.

The most important training events for the 76th Guards Air Assault Division in the Pskov Oblast were the co-operation exercise with the Belarus military in Brest in September and the civilian exercise in Pskov and Strugi Krasnye in September. Despite the spread of the virus, conscripts continued to be sent to the division, but with a greater temporal dispersion.

Russia is involved in military operations outside the country in three regions -- Syria, Ukraine and Libya. On Nov. 10, it was announced that 1,960 peacekeepers would be sent to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict zone in Nagorno-Karabakh, where observation posts were set up.

The majority of those sent came from the 15th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade of the Central Military District in the Samara Oblast. 90 armored vehicles, 380 cars and special equipment were brought along. There were also reports of movements of units of the 102nd Military Base located in Armenia to the concentration areas in order to be ready to fulfill a task.

Developments within Russia's military branches

The Russian Ground Forces has received 42 self-propelled rocket launcher systems BM-27 Uragan added to the complement of the 1st Tank Army of the Western Military District in addition to the existing ones, in accordance with the Vienna Document, replacing the self-propelled rocket launcher systems BM-21 Grad.

The planned reforms of the Airborne Forces have been stalled, but supplies of new or modernized machinery and equipment continue. The Airborne Forces received about 300 units of modern armored and other equipment in 2020, including the BMD-4M airborne fighting vehicles and BTR-MDM armored personnel carriers. The delivery of parachute systems D-10 and Arbalet-2 continues alongside the delivery of PBS-950U, equipment and machinery required to drop. Work is underway to improve the artillery capabilities of the Airborne Forces with tests taking place for the armored tank destroyer Sprut-SDM1.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, medical centers were also built for the armed forces in Pskov with 200 beds and Velikiye Luki with 100 beds. The spread of COVID-19 also affected the training of units, especially in the spring. For example, the corresponding unit of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division was disinfecting city streets, and normal training was disrupted.

76th Guards Air Assault Division added two battalion sets of BMD-4M and BTR-MDM armored vehicles during the year. Thus, four of the division's seven maneuvering battalions are armed with the latest combat machines, which have more advanced maneuverability and firepower than before. The Air Assault Airborne Regiment consists of one airborne battalion and two assault airborne battalions.

To date, the division has four airborne assault battalions, all of which are armed with modernized combat vehicles. In the airborne assault forces more generally, offensive units have become a priority, as indicated by the establishment of tank battalions in these units.

Great attention was still being paid in the Air and Space Forces to the development of air and missile defense and the development of early warning capabilities of strategically important areas in case of air and missile attacks, the aircraft fleet modernization also continued. Long-range strategic bombers and naval anti-submarine planes continued to patrol the world's seas and oceans to demonstrate presence and provide deterrence, while raising awareness of allied activities on Russia's borders.

The replacement of the S-300 Favorit weapon systems of air defense rocket regiments with S-400 Triumf continued. The regiments armed with the S-400 achieved combat readiness in Khabarovsk Krai and the Oblasts of Sakhalin, Sverdlovsk, Samara and Leningrad. 

In the Arctic direction, regiment armed with the S-300PS system in Yakutia achieved combat readiness and the same was done by the anti-aircraft missile brigade unit armed with the S-300V4 system in the Far East in the Kuril Archipelago. The first S-350 Vityaz weapon system was delivered to the training center of the anti-aircraft missile forces in the Leningrad Oblast. It is planned to arm the first anti-aircraft missile brigade armed with this system in 2021.

The upgraded strategic bombers Tu-95MS and Tu-160 can be armed with the new H-101 missile. The modernized test specimens Tu-95MSM and Tu-160M2 made their first flights. During the modernization, the aircraft will receive new communication and navigation systems and engine. An agreement was achieved between the Ulyanovsk Aircraft Construction Plant Aviastar-SP and the Ministry of Defense for the construction of new tanker aircraft IL-78M-90A, while the construction of new transport aircraft IL-76MD-90A continued.

New Su-35S fighters and Su-34 attack bombers were handed over; approximately 100 fighters and 130 bombers have been built under previous contracts. The modernization of another batch of MiG-31 fighter jets was completed and approximately 150 MiG-31BM/BSM fighter jets have been delivered.

The Air and Space Forces received the first series manufactured new generation Su-57 fighter jets, which were handed over to the Akthubinsk State Flight Test Center in the Astrakhan Oblast. In the coming years, it is planned to arm the 6th Air and Air Defense Forces Army of the Western Military District with Su-57 fighters. A contract has been signed for the supply of a batch of modernized multi-purpose naval destroyers Su-30SM2. The modernization of the Su-25 attack aircraft to the level of Su-25SM3 continued. 

The Strategic Missile Forces are a key component of Russia's strategic deterrent forces, the modernization and maintenance of which is a priority of the Armed Forces. At the end of the year, 81 percent of the branch was equipped with modern weapons. Currently, the main focus is on rearmament.

Topol missiles are beign removed from the armament and replaced with Jars missiles. The latter should be taken into use by at least two missile regiments during 2021 - 27th Missile Army of a regiment of the 28th Division (Kaluga Oblast), with missiles located in the shaft and a regiment of the 35th Division of the 33rd Missile Army (Altai Krai) with mobile missiles. The 31st Missile Army is likely to get two more Avangard intercontinental missiles with an ultrasonic warhead into its armament.

By the end of 2021, one missile regiment, that is six missiles, should be fully armed with this system. Preparations for the launch of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile flight test should also be completed with this year. Thus far, launch tests have been performed with the missile.

This year, the security situation in Estonia's neighborhood can be expected to intensify, as this time the strategic command and control exercise will be conducted in the western direction - the active phase of Zapad 2021 will take place Sept. 10-16, 2021. At the request of Russia, the exercise is planned to be organized on the basis of common operational and strategic background of both Russia and Belarus. During the maneuvers, it is planned that new ways of joint activities of the offensive units are practiced in the metropolitan area to assess the effectiveness of new and modernized armaments and military equipment, but also to learn from the combat experience of Russian officers.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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