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President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has a long record of being economical with the truth. This is especially the case when it comes to admitting the size of his country’s military exercises, as Moscow is required to do under international agreements.
At least since 2009, Moscow always claimed that the exercises it held fell below the 13,000-troop level it had agreed with the OSCE in the Vienna Document of 2011 as the threshold before foreign observers had to be invited to attend such manoeuvres.
To add insult to injury, soon after such exercises are finished, Moscow defiantly and merrily admits that its initial declarations are false, and that their manoeuvres were much bigger than claimed.
For instance, the authorities announced that the Kavkaz-2008 exercise would involve only 8,000 troops. However, post-exercise, official Russian open sources put the figure at 15,000.
A more egregious example is Kavkaz-2016, when the Russians announced that 12,500 troops would be taking part, only to declare afterwards that, in fact, the true figure was 222,000, way above the threshold.
In other instances, the difference between the pre-exercise stated figure and the post-exercise announcement is between the hundreds and the tens of thousands.
It is natural to assume, therefore, that the same pattern will once again happen with this week’s Zapad-2017. Declining to admit that different exercises are conducted as part of a unified plan is a standard trick used by Russia to sabotage the provisions of the Vienna Document.
For example, Russia declined to declare as a single activity the Osen-2009 exercises depicting their episodes as three separate exercises – Zapad-2009, Ladoga-2009 and Kavkaz-2009.
To add insult to injury, soon after such exercises are finished, Moscow defiantly and merrily admits that its initial declarations are false, and that their manoeuvres were much bigger than claimed
At each stage, the method adopted by Russia is to unilaterally restrict the announced geographic scope of Russian military activities, which otherwise would require foreign monitoring. Instead, Moscow claims that the exercises are separate and therefore not covered by the same international reporting regulations.
In Zapad-2017, Russian Airborne Troops have not been declared as an integrated part of the exercise, while Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov, the force’s commander, publicly admitted that his headquarters and three Divisions – the 76th Guards Air-Assault, the 98th, and 106th Guards Airborne Divisions and, probably, the 45th Guards Reconnaissance Brigade (no fewer than 19–20,000 troops altogether), would all take part in the manoeuvres.
On their own, inclusion of these troops would be enough to trigger international monitoring, since their numbers are above the 13,000 mark. However, the Kremlin has not uttered a word on this.
Vice-Admiral Aleksander Nosatov, the Russian Baltic Fleet’s Commander, recently admitted that ‘eventually all the Fleet’s land, air and maritime assets will take part in Zapad-2017’. All in all, this would mean an additional 11,700 troops from the 7th Detached Guards Motorised-Rifle Regiment, the 79th Guards Motorised-Rifle Brigade and the 244th Guards Artillery Brigade of the 11th Army Corps, as well as the Fleet’s 336th Guards Marines Brigade of the Baltic Fleet. This alone is way more than the declared number of troops – 2,500 – involved on Russian soil.
Meanwhile, Belarus Defence Minister Andrey Ravkov acknowledged that the exercise will take part on the territory stretching ‘from Belarus to the Kola Peninsula’, implying that the Russian Northern Fleet’s 14th Army Corps (the 80th and 200th Brigades) will take part too. This adds up to 9,800 extra men to the total count of the forces involved, putting the total at around 65–70,000 troops, rather than the 12,700 troops officially declared.
It is time to recognise that the Vienna Document which allows its signatories to behave with impunity is out of date and has outlived its purpose
One can draw two conclusions from Russia’s behaviour. First, Moscow long ago embarked on the path of undermining Russia’s readiness to live up to its obligations to promote confidence-building measures (CBM) in Europe.
The practice of concealment and/or distortion of the military exercises’ scope over the past eight to ten years has undermined the Vienna Document in both spirit and letter. It is impossible to take for granted any longer that information provided by Moscow under provisions of the European CBM process is either accurate or truthful.
At the same time, the Russian Federation has enjoyed full unopposed access to the Vienna Document-envisaged information on the military exercises of its European counterparts.
It is time to recognise that the Vienna Document which allows its signatories to behave with impunity is out of date and has outlived its purpose. Facing an assertive Russia, future CBMs should provide for measures that deter and/or prevent manipulations similar to those exercised by Moscow.
Second, Russia is evidently concerned about the prospect that, in return for its obfuscation, it may lose access to the information on its European counterparts’ military activities. That is why Moscow is going to some lengths to downplay and conceal its own non-compliance with the agreement.
Either way, the halcyon era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when CBMs were all the rage, is now over. For, as Putin has proved, Russia will keep violating the Vienna Document for years to come.
Banner image: Vladimir Putin watches large-scale military exercises involving Eastern and Central Military District forces. In all probability, more than 13,000 troops are involved. Courtesy of the Office of the President of Russia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.