Russia’s Military Cooperation Goals in Central Asia

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Russia’s Military Cooperation Goals in Central Asia

What military threats keep Russia and its Central Asian partners up at night?

Russia’s Military Cooperation Goals in Central Asia
Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

The year 2017 marked several important milestones for Russian-led “not-so-allied” alliances: the Collective Security Treaty (on the basis of which an organization of the same name, the CSTO, was created) turned 25, while the Commonwealth of Independent States Joint Air Defense System (CIS JADS) received an “adaptation roadmap” to tackle Air-Space Defense tasks. Several high-profile multilateral military exercises took place, and their analysis may help understand the grand strategy of Russia and other participants in these groupings.

Guardians of CIS Air and Space

Basic Guidelines for the CIS Joint Air Defense System (JADS) Adaptation to the Air-Space Defense (ASD) tasks were signed at the meeting of the CIS Heads of State Council in Sochi in October 2017. The process is due to be completed by 2025.

Currently, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (as well as Turkmenistan as an observer) provide the Air Defense System of the CIS Member States (CIS Air Defense Forces) with 19 aviation units, 38 anti-aircraft missile units, 16 signals units, nine air defense brigades, and three electronic warfare (EW) units.

The main directions of JADS adaptation presumably include developing the regulatory framework, improving the organizational structure and management system, further integrating the forces and assets, and creating several subsystems, i.e. reconnaissance and early warning, countering aerospace attacks, command and control, and maintenance.

In addition, some specific military-technical cooperation steps are planned, including the supply of anti-aircraft missiles to Kazakhstan; the modernization of communication systems in Kyrgyzstan; the supply of aviation and anti-aircraft assets to Tajikistan; and the supply of spare parts for air defense systems in Armenia and Belarus.

At the current stage, the formation of a seamless joint air defense and, probably in the long term, of a missile defense perimeter within the framework of Eurasian integration looks like a task of paramount importance.

Early warning systems play a key role, and some elements of its ground echelon based on legacy Soviet Missile Attack Warning System (SPRN) assets have been reinforced with modern Voronezh-type radar stations. Some elements of the ASD system are located outside the existing borders of the Russian Federation: the Dnepr radar and the Sary-Shagan center in Kazakhstan, the Volga radar in Belarus, the Okno (Nurek) optical-electronic observatory for outer space in Tajikistan. The space echelon is currently at an early stage of deployment with two satellites of the Integrated Space System (EKS) online.

The ASD contour, obviously, should include firing elements, and the issue of separating the tasks of warning and targeting was and remains one of the most acute in the context of the impact of missile defense (ABM or BMD) systems on strategic stability.

A timely warning of an attack allows for a swift analysis of its nature and for a retaliatory or counterattack, which in itself reduces the attractiveness of a first strike for the enemy and thereby strengthens strategic stability. However, the possibility of repelling an attack can serve as a shield against a weakened second strike and, on the contrary, stimulate an attempt to carry out a first disarming strike.

Presumably, the fire circuit in Russia will be represented by the S-300, S-400 and S-500 series systems, and the core of the air defense and missile defense system of the Central Industrial Region, based on the Moscow ABM A-135 missile defense – to be replaced by A-235 and “Nudol” (possibly integrated with the S-500 system) in the coming decades.

At present, there seem to be no long-range anti-missiles in service, but the development of a new generation — the replacement of the famous 51T6 “Gorgon” interceptor — is nearing completion. Most likely, work is underway to further integrate air defense systems, primarily S-300М4s and Buk-M3s (and Buk-M4s eventually) into a single network.

The Russian defense industry has gained a good rate of production of S-400 systems: two factories are providing the rearmament of anti-aircraft missile forces on national territory (in five years, at least 16 anti-aircraft missile regiments have been re-equipped), and export contracts in the interests of China, India, and Turkey are being started. In addition, several units provide cover for the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.

The possibility of supplying S-400 systems to key allies within the framework of the CSTO, i.e. to Belarus and Kazakhstan, is being considered as well.

In addition, the Russian Navy has some anti-aircraft and anti-missile capabilities, but the total number of carriers and the characteristics of anti-aircraft systems do not allow us to speak of the role of a naval component comparable to the Aegis of the U.S. Navy and their allies.

But we have to answer the most important question: which airspace threats are allies preparing to counter?

Let’s turn to the available information on JADS exercises, which include more than 25 command post exercises and more than 10 joint exercises with live firing. These events included scenarios of aircraft violating orders, aircraft violating state borders, hijacked aircraft, rendering assistance to distressed crews, as well as proper combat episodes.

“Combat Commonwealth-2017” (September 2017) provides some insights. During the exercise, air defense assets and air forces of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan used plenty of systems from different generations: S-400, S-300, S-200V, C-125M-K (M2), S-75M3, Krug, Kub, Osa anti-aircraft missiles and “Strela-2M” MANPADS, Tu-22M3 long-range bombers, Su-27, Su-30, MiG-29 fighters, MiG-31 interceptors, Su-34 bombers, Yak-130, Su-25 attack planes and Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft.

Various targets simulated incoming threats, including the “Kaban” (ballistic targets), “Pishchal-B,” “Armavir-VU,” and “Bekas” targets (flying at high and medium altitudes). Target rockets 95Y6-2M, Armavir-75MVU1, as well as air targets E-95, allowed the air defense units to work out the fight against aerial attack weapons at low and extremely low altitudes, high speeds, and small sizes.

One of the episodes of the exercise at the Ashuluk training range in the Astrakhan region of the Russian Federation simulated the events in the Caucasus region of collective security. The anti-aircraft missile forces of Armenia, the air defense forces of Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Air Force, and the Belarusian Air Defense Force rebuffed a massive missile and air strike.

Fighter aircraft of the RuAF, having repulsed a massive missile and air strike, secured air supremacy, after which the RuAF and the Air Force of Belarus destroyed the military facilities and manpower of the “bandits” while the Kyrgyz Air Defense Forces ensured disruption of armament and other supplies to “a provisional enemy in the area of ​​an armed border conflict.” A similar scenario was “played” at Sary-Shagan, Kazakhstan, but with emphasis on Kazakh air defense forces’ deployment in the Central Asian region of collective security.

Probably, in the context of the CIS JADS, the main threat is the same: the escalation of an internal or border conflict into all-out civil or regional war, when serious actors capable of massive missile and air strikes and “air bridges” reinforce one of the participants (the “bandits”). Military-political leaders of the CIS countries probably have decided that now is the right time to prepare for an even more serious, aerospace-level of possible extraregional forces’ involvement.

Given these scenarios, the declared list of used equipment, as well as the information on the foreign infrastructure of the Russian VKO forces, we have some basis for forecasting the possible results of the adaptation of the CIS JADS to ASD tasks. Most likely, this process will focus on the integration of air and space monitoring tools and the formation of mobile fire groups capable of covering threatened areas from the whole range of “tools” that may be employed by possible adversaries.

CIS ASD (albeit with the participation of only eight states) will come into being, but it is not a self-sufficient measure – cooperation in other domains is vital.

CSTO Brothers-in-Arms

For several months in autumn 2017, the armed forces of CSTO member-states trained under the “Combat Brotherhood-2017” banner. The strategic exercise occupied the training grounds of several states in the two collective security regions. Key features of this large-scale event, which lasted from October 3 to November 20, 2017, may provide some insights into the type of threats that bother regional decision-makers.

“Combat Brotherhood-2017” took place in the Caucasus and Central Asian collective security regions, and we will focus on the latter. However, the preparations began back in the spring: the Military Academy of the General Staff Military Games Center hosted a tabletop game near Moscow for the representatives of the Joint Staff, the Secretariat, the Permanent Council, CSTO ministries, and agencies.

Combat units began their drills in October in the territory of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Armenia: “Search-2017” for the recon divisions; command and staff training with the CSTO Collective Rapid Deployment Force (CRDF) Command; “Interaction-2017” (9-13 October) with the contingents of the CRDF and several detachments of Russo-Armenian Joint Forces Group (JFG), as well as Russian Air Force (RuAF).

During the reconnaissance training, the most important part was the successful establishment of real-time information flows between a specially organized joint command and control post and the CSTO CRDF command. At the final stage of “Search-2017,” special forces from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia destroyed a large provisional “illegal armed groups” (IAG) base with air support from Russian and Armenian Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters, but air-wise there was an interesting detail: RuAF MiG-29 fighters provided cover against “sudden aviation or missile strikes” – obviously not a common asset for IAGs.

At “Interaction-2017” under the leadership of Colonel-General Alexander Dvornikov, commander of the Russian Southern Military District, motorized rifle, tank, artillery, and airborne units from the five CSTO members, with air support provided by RuAF, trained in action against an enemy involved in “aggressive actions in the border area.” As usual, enemies are IAGs, but they have sabotage-reconnaissance groups, recon and strike unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and to carry out preemptive strikes against the advancing and deploying enemy units CSTO used tube and rocket artillery, motorized rifle and tank units. Two elements of the “Interaction” are worth mentioning specifically: the joint work of the electronic warfare (EW) and air defense units to defeat enemy UAVs, and employment of “reconnaissance-fire contours (RFCs)” for the destruction of enemy forces and assets. RFCs have become an essential element of Russian military exercises lately, and now the experience is shared with possible allies in future battles.

Then the focus moved to Kazakhstan, where the CSTO Peacekeeping Force held the “Unbreakable Brotherhood-2017.” The CSTO MC continues to gain experience in organizing training and deployment for peacekeeping operations. As in 2016, the “Indestructible Brotherhood” scenario included a fictional UN Security Council Resolution as a basic provision for the peacekeepers’ deployment in a state that is not a member of the CSTO. (The CSTO actively promotes its activities at international venues both in the UN and in the OSCE, but, so far, the peacekeeping corps has not participated in any real peacekeeping operations — even though the CSTO peacekeeping agreement celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017).

During this exercise, attention was paid to the interaction between national contingents and international organizations (including the International Committee of the Red Cross within the scope of humanitarian assistance).

The key tasks exercised were the following: operations at checkpoints and observation posts; land and urban patrols; protection of critical infrastructure; demining operations; radiation, chemical and biological reconnaissance; riot control; humanitarian supplies and refugee convoys escort; and blocking and destruction of IAGs.

A notable feature was the presence of the public order adviser of the United Nations Police Department, Giorgio Giaimo at the exercise: the distinguished Italian Carabinieri Officer watched the actions of the CSTO police personnel. In addition, in order to identify problems and prepare proposals for improving the collective security system of the CSTO, a research team was formed from representatives of leading military educational institutions and research organizations of the CSTO member countries, operating as a part of the staff that conducted the exercise.

After the peacekeeping operation, the CSTO began the most massive event at Tajikistan training grounds in November. CSTO CRDF and units from the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the Armed Forces of the Republic Tajikistan (that also formed the JFG) were under command by Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, then-commander of the troops of the Central Military District. The task was to organize the destruction of a provisional group of Islamic State terrorists, who launched an intrusion from the territory of Afghanistan and, in cooperation with local allies, sought to destabilize the situation in “one of the CSTO states.”

The scale of the event was impressive: more than 12,000 people, over 1,500 units of equipment, more than 90 aircraft. One vivid illustration was the participation of strategic and substrategic assets in the destruction of the “terrorists.” Long-range Tu-22M3 bombers struck the targets with high-explosive bombs (probably using “Syrian” experience), and, more importantly, they were accompanied by a “retinue” of MiG-31 interceptors “to clear airspace.” Strategic Tu-95MS bombers with cover from the Kazakh Su-30 fighters saw some action as well. Back on the ground, the operational-tactical missile system Iskander-M (which was airlifted to Tajikistan for the second time in 2017), destroyed the target 130 km away with the new missile, which is more accurate and stealthier.

Destroy Terrorists, Deter Interventions

Returning to the Russian experience, one must consider the most important thesis voiced by General Gerasimov during the report at the Collegium of the Ministry of Defense of Russia: speaking about the forces of strategic non-nuclear deterrence based on precision weapons, he emphasized the creation of battle groups capable of controlling sea and air space. S-400 air defense systems, Bastion coastal missile systems, as well as ships with Kalibr cruise missiles form a basis for such units. Obviously, the Central Asian region is not the best place for sea-based cruise missiles, but the Iskander-M land-based missile system may cover similar tasks as well – and it has already been deployed to Tajikistan on several occasions in 2017.

Similar structural organization may be a long-term goal for some kind of “United Defense System,” but it is impossible to predict now within which integration association framework (CIS, CSTO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or something else) this may happen.

Armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq vividly illustrated the new capabilities of IAGs and bandits, getting on par with state actors, so the use of the entire range of forces and assets in training is justified. At the same time, the nomenclature of weapons used, as well as the accents within each of the exercises discussed above provide for a broader context. The key task of exercises in various allied formats is the demonstration of capabilities to prevent the interference of extraregional players in conflicts that may break out in the Russian zone of responsibility. Such interference may take the form of support for the “wrong” side in the internal/border conflict by arms and other resources that fuel confrontation, and, eventually, standoff missile strikes that may decisively shift the balance. Deterrence of these actions is of paramount importance for the Russian Federation, should the country be willing to remain the most powerful entity in the region.

Dmitry Stefanovich is an independent military expert.