Command-and-staff exercises: a Russian “trace” isn’t obvious

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On September 14-20 in Belarus a planned command-and-staff exercises of the army were carried out. The topic of the event was “Command of the Armed Forces group, other troops and military formations during a special operation to stabilize the situation in some crisis areas of the state”.

The training included wide range of situations. The main ones were the location of troops in designated areas, the creation of a unified command body for established group of forces, the organization of interaction of multidepartment forces, as well as repelling attacks of illegal armed formations and sabotage and reconnaissance groups of the enemy and neutralizing them.

Command-and-staff exercises were held in two stages. The first one was dedicated to the creation of multidepartment group of forces for special operations, the second one – to practical command of the group in the framework of a special operation. The troops had to fulfil a number of simulated situations, including the suppression of attempts to violate the state border on land and in the air, taking part in liquidation of consequences of man-caused accidents and others.

The Armed Forces, the task force and troops of the Interior Ministry, Ministry of Emergencies, State Border Committee, as well as the task groups of the State Security Committee (KGB) and the Investigative Committee were involved into the exercises. About 7,500 people, up to 60 battle tanks, 220 armoured combat vehicles and 50 artillery pieces, mortars and MLRS took part in the exercises. About 450 people were also called up from the reserve.

Specifics of the exercises. The first one is clear from the title — practicing a special operation. Special operations are a form of operations to prevent the escalation of armed conflict. They are prepared and carried out by special groups of troops (forces) and the means to achieve particular goals for the benefit of settlement of the armed conflict in its early stages. Some of them can be carried out in peacetime. Such operations may include: radio-electronic, psychological, peace-keeping operations, operations to combat drug trafficking and terrorism; to protect the economic centres (districts); to eliminate gangs and other. That is, we are talking about so-called “small war” which is characterized by specific actions: counterterrorist, countersubversive, partisan, anti-partisan.

The second feature of these exercises is the involvement of virtually all military polygons.

Further, we see the direct declaration of the need for the army to be ready to “… an adequate response to the potential actions of destructive forces to destabilize the situation inside the country for the purpose of anti-constitutional change of the current government … The conception of the exercises envisages the creation of the situation, when the internal armed conflict is triggered in the country… The participants of the exercise will be forced to respond to both traditional forms and methods of using the military force by the opposing party, and to the actions of subversive and terrorist nature”. And further: “In the first place the upcoming exercises should be regarded as the implementation of planned activities aimed at improving combat readiness of troops, their ability to perform tasks … taking into account the emergence in the world of new challenges and threats to the military security of the state. To date, there are similar approaches in different countries and military alliances, including NATO, as evidenced by the development in the Alliance of a new concept to respond to such threats as hybrid warfare”. Actually, the news is not that the responses to hybrid threats are developed in Belarus: the process lasts at least for 15 years, but previously there wasn’t an appropriate term. News is in recognition of the fact that the NATO countries themselves are not ready for such challenges and act as the defending side. Previously, for a long time Belarusian authorities accused the Alliance of threatening almost everybody, while nobody was threatening it.

It is interesting to note that the basis of the exercises provides rejection of the reliance on the military-political alliances on the territories of the former Soviet Union: two-way alliance with Russia and the CSTO. It is unclear, why the “brothers” aren’t satisfying Belarus: either they are unreliable, or dangerous; or it is the manifestation of a quiet desire to be non-aligned state. The first and third versions are most likely.

“Eastern Wall”. For the first time in the territory of Mahiliou region in Horki district (which is bordering Russia) a company of regional forces, which will fulfil the task of strengthening border protection was formed.

This fact, coupled with the scale of exercises and involving into it almost all Belarusian law enforcement agencies has given some commentators a reason to believe that the official Minsk is prepared to repel the “hybrid” aggression from the east. Sometimes, the inadequacy of comments is just embarrassing.

At the same time the fact that the scenario of the exercise includes training measures to combat illegal migration is ignored. Military (including territorial army) together with border guards have solved issues on the equipment of temporary checkpoints on the state border, establishment of the checkpoints on the main road routes, surveillance along the border, combating attempts to violate the state border on land and in airspace.

Special, but not unique. Ministry of Internal Affairs (including existing then Investigative Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) and the Ministry of Emergency Situations participate in large-scale military exercises for the first time from 2001. Then, according to the scenario of the exercises “Nioman-2001”, there was a situation in which “blue” attacked the “red” with the aim of changing the constitutional order and the seizure of the territory. KGB is the constant participant of military exercises at all levels and scales at least being represented by the military counterintelligence.

Territorial defence troops were first formed in the framework of exercises “Shield of Fatherland-2004”.

The exercise scenario is usually based on some practical situations. In the case of “Nioman-2001” it was a war in Kosovo. Later, after the US and its allies invasion of Iraq, the concept changed and the emphasis was made on issues of the use of air defence and aviation while repelling massive air attack. 2014 was a turning point – the threat of a “hybrid war” became the agenda. Although the war in Kosovo had a lot of signs of “hybridity”. So, in some sense, we can talk about moving in a spiral.

It is necessary to note that in the course of all the large-scale exercises in Belarus, various types of algorithms that can be applied in a similar situation, regardless of geographic location, are practiced. This means that the fact of the exercise in a particular geographic area to strengthen border security to one of the neighbouring countries, taking into account rather compact size of our country, indicates quite little. It is necessary to separate the political and practical factors. From a practical point of view, the value is what is done, not where it is done. In international relations, geography matters and conducting large-scale exercises near the borders of a hostile state can be used / evaluated as an attempt to exert political pressure. However, this is not about us.

Conclusions. In recent years from the border areas only in the Brest and Mahiliou regions the issues of creating regional forces and their participation in guarding the border weren’t practiced. So in this case the thing, that should have happened, happens. And it happens in the border area.

At the moment there are no reasons to suggest that in Mahiliou region the actions to repel the probable aggression by Russia were practiced. In the first place we are talking about practicing law enforcement activities. Many have forgotten that in Belarus for almost 10 years there are no Border Troops, but there are bodies of border service, which are a specialized police with certain security services functions.

It is also necessary to note that on September 4, 2014 Aliaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree № 433 “On Amendments to the Decree of the President of the Republic of Belarus of March 9, 2009 № 125”, which establishes the border area within the administrative-territorial units, adjacent to the state border of the Republic of Belarus and Russian Federation. As explained, this will create the conditions for the implementation of mandated bodies of border service of tasks and functions within this area, as well as to organize a proper interaction with the border authorities of Russia aimed at solving problems to detect and prevent the transit of illegal migration, drug trafficking and smuggling inventory items and goods. Certainly, not the last factor in this decision was the Russian-Ukrainian war. However, after two years the Belarusian border guards on the eastern border haven’t appeared on a regular basis. This suggests that it is not a hypothetical threat from the Russian side was the main cause of the spread of the border regime to the regions of Belarus, neighbouring Russia. The reason is not so unclear: the smuggling of alcohol and drugs from the east had reached alarming scale. Even now the cost of arrangement of the border with Russia would be covered for a year only due to the projected increase in excise duty on alcohol. And in the second year the state treasury will receive 4 times more than will devote to maintaining the Border Guard on the eastern border. However, it should be emphasized that the issue of border guard on Belarusian-Russian border is rooted in law enforcement, and is slightly connected with the issues of national defence.

Involvement of the Investigative Committee suggests that at least a substantial part of the activities conducted within the framework of the exercises refers to the field of law enforcement and the fight against crime, including the crime against the state. It should be noted that the Investigative Committee is only a law enforcement agency, the value of which in a combat situation is almost zero.

Judging by the announced plan of the exercises and activities, which were planned to practice, we are talking about a certain list of particular scenarios: border security, illegal migration, man-made disasters, armed rebellions, infiltration of saboteurs, etc. Therefore, we can’t talk about the direction of the exercises against someone: each scenario requires its own private eventual source / sources of threats, at least a significant part of which is within national borders. But the development of interagency cooperation in the solution of this or that crisis unites all these scenarios in the whole event. Thus, the exercises are partly research in their nature.

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