The valence of the Russian Drills during the turmoil in Middle East

By Luca Mazzacane

The Russian Ministry of Defense began 2020 proactively, inaugurating the new year with a naval military exercise in the Black Sea. This activity is part of a bigger plan of drills involving other countries, but that always had the Russian Hypersonic missile Kinzhal (*1) as protagonist. During the recent past, Russia had joined military drills with China, Georgia, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Russia seems to be keen in cooperating with foreign countries, expanding its network, while maintaining the army trade talks with Israel, Syria and Turkey. The large operativity of the Russian Minister of Defense is a powerful message addressed to the West, not only regarding Kremlin’s firepower, but also on the developing network with countries that, historically, have been military backed by the US and the Atlantic Alliance. Following the intense Russian operativity, NATO planned and launched on the 23rd of January the biggest military drill of the past 25 years, the Defender Europe-20. The deployment of the troops is located among the Baltic States, Poland and Georgia, causing the anger of the Kremlin, especially on the proximity to the Belarusian and Russian borders that will be closely observed by Russia, as reported by Anton Lavrov(*2).

Kremlin’s drills

In chronological order, the first recent Russian drill worth to mention is the one at the Aviadarts of 2019. The aviation competition, comprised in the annual International Army Games and hosted by the Russian Army, could count on important guests such as the Chinese, Belarusian, Kazakh military forces. During this event the Kremlin had the chance to showcase the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, in its first operative drill. During the winter, the Russian tests became more intense and involved new technologies, other than the Kinzhal, already previewed during the 2019 Aviadarts.

As confirmed by General Valery Gerasimov during a meeting with 150 military attachés from the diplomatic missions of 70 countries, the MoD has already tested the efficacy of the missile in extreme conditions, such as the Arctic one. The successful result of the drills puts new emphasis in the undergoing Russian military expansion in the Arctic region, more specifically five HQ have been individuated(*3) : Rogachyovo in Novaya Zemlya, Nagurskoye in Aleksandra lsland, Sredniy in Severnaya Zemlya, Kotelny in the New Siberia Islands and in Wrangel Island. The existence of these military basis, combined with the Kinzhal’s implementation, poses a serious threat to the Scandinavian countries neighboring with Russia, given the specificities of the hypersonic missile that rend it unstoppable(*4) .
These extreme conditioned drills are part of a larger set of military exercises, held in cooperation with China, India and Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, namely the Tsentr-2019.The Tsentr exercises counted on 128,000 soldiers, more than 20,000 components of weaponry and military equipment (250 tanks, 450 infantry fighting vehicles, 200 artillery barrels), over 600 aircrafts among jets, helicopters, drones and around 12 naval units (*5) .
On the 17th of December 2019, Russia and Syria started their first joint naval exercise, counting on 2,000 soldiers and 10 vessels and tens of aircrafts(*6) . Located in the area of Tartus (*7) , the drill coherently follows the military back-up that the Kremlin has granted to Assad since 2015, and comprised the simulation of an UAV attack, the infiltration of enemy scuba divers and a checkpoint aggression(*8) . Within a month, a second joint drill between the two forces had place in Taurus. From the 18th to the 20th of January, the naval forces simulated a session of mine detection around the port, trialed the Pantsir-S air defense missile system over the coastal area, while the military police units worked on jointed security measures and operations(*9).
The focus of both drill sessions on the port of Taurus confirms the Russian interests on the area, as the Kremlin plans to spend $500 M on the port infrastructures over the next four years. Furthermore, Russia can count also on the air base in the Syrian province of Latakia, used to contrast the rebel forces opposed to the regime of Assad.

At the end of December 2019, new drills were set in the Gulf of Oman with the participation of China and Iran. During the four days of military exercises, the joint forces concluded operations of ship rescuing, under the condition of fire or pirate attack(*10) . The aim of the training was to improve the security of the international waters, being ready to counter terrorism and piracy, said the Second Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani(*11) . While the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Defense Wu Qian ensured that the localization of the drills has not to be not related with the situation undergoing in the area (*12). Nevertheless, the Gulf of Oman is a key hub for the naval transit, also due the proximity to the Hormuz Strait(*13) , from which passes the 25% of the global oil supply.

Finally, on the 9th of January the Federation had a missile drill in the waters of the Black Sea, close to Sebastopol. The jointed operation with the Northern Fleet(*14) included the launch of the Kalibr cruise missile and of the hypersonic ballistic Kinzhal. The Kalibr missile were launched from small naval units, Orekhovo-Zuyevo, and from the submarite unit Kolpino, while the Kinzhal missiles were installed on two Mig-31K fighter jets(*15) . The joint drills involved around 30 ships, 1 submarine and more than 40 aircrafts(*16) . The particular attention to the the Kinzhal drills, hints the readiness of the weapon, projected with the aim of deterring US and NATO warships and counter any existent missile defense system(*17) .

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile

The Kinzhal missile has been presented in 2018, and presented as a nuclear-capable, hypersonic missile that travels at Mach 10 speed, according to Vladimir Putin(*18) . The lethality of the missile is given by its specs and by the air-launched support provided by the M31K fighter jet, that increment the mobility and reachability of the missile itself. There are doubts on the reliability of the specifics released by TASS, but, if true, they would rend the Kinzhal unique in the world, being able to perform maneuvers during any phase of its flight and carrying non and nuclear warheads. According to the data released(*19) , the ALBM(*20) derive from the Russian Iskander missile, normally equipped on the MiG-31 fighter jet. The missile has a range of 1500-2000 km when installed on a jet, 3000 km if equipped on the Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (*21) . The ALBM has a reported length of 8m and weights 4300 kg circa, a fit that benefits to the high degree of maneuverability. Having a launch acceleration of Mach4, the Kinzhal can reach the Mach 10 speed and avoid U.S. and NATO missile defense systems, while targeting large infrastructures such as airships, warehouses, HQ, etc.). Defensive systems such as the THAAD and the Patriot cannot counter the missile, as the former cannot strike aircrafts and the latter cannot react at the Kinzhal speed.
The potentialities of the equipment are set to increase with the instalment of the ALBM on the Su-57(*22) stealth fighter, the most advanced aircraft of the Russian army. The new equipment could strengthen the Russian aviation forces, but at the moment it remains a prospect over the decade. The Su-57 already costs $42 M per unit(*23) and its production experienced a slow start, began almost ten years later its first flight in 2010.

Kremlin’s network in Middle East

In addition to the high operativity of the army and the developments in warfare technology, Russia is expanding its military network by means of support and trade. In the overall, it can be said that the kremlin is benefitting of the hostile American foreign policy in Middle East by consolidating and renewing the ties with important countries such as Iran, Turkey and Syria.

The business engaged with Turkey is an indirect result of the sanctions imposed by the US to Ankara. To the existing CAATSA (*24)sanction over Turkey’s purchase of S-400 Russian missile defense system, it might be added the Graham-Van Hollen Sanctions Bill(*25) . The Act taken follows the Turkish invasion in the North east of Syria that driven to the killing of Kurdish people. Among the provision previewed, Turkey would experience restriction in the energetic sector and the cut of the US financial support(*26) . The Kremlin seized the moment, proposing new S-400 supplies to Ankara that would sour even more the ties between Erdogan and Trump, even after that Ankara refused twice the American offer of the Patriot system, has the Turkish could not have access to the IT knowledge of the system. Furthermore, the Russian equipment seems to perform better than the American one, offering a wider range and multiple threats strike capability(*27) .

The cooperation with Iran goes beyond joint military drill and arms sales, as Russia is backing Iran in his development, for instance by pushing for the inclusion of Teheran to the Eurasian Economic Union (*28). In the energetic field, Russia has agreed to cover the 85% of the building cost of a new thermal power plant in Sirik, close to the strait of Hormuz; and signed for the construction of 8 nuclear reactors on Assad’s territory. In all of that the ties between the two countries has strengthen mostly on the field, being the two principal allies of Assad in the Syrian civil war.

Syria stands out as a relationship of a different nature: the Kremlin backed the Assad regime since the 2015. The Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war stopped and later partially defeated(*29) the ISIL troops in the territory, contributing in the survival of Assad’s regime. Other than the trusted relationship between Assad and Putin, Russia put another pawn on the Middle Eastern geopolitical chessboard, left void by the US army. Syria has been the first Russian point of access to Middle East, now the Kremlin has the chance to secure the political settlement in Damascus. The withdrawal of the US forces from Northern Syria permitted to the Russian forces to take over the US bases, three at the moment(*30) , and enlarge their military presence over the country. On the other hand, the Syrian civil war is firstly a Russian matter, being the first ally to react at terroristic threats or Atlantic strikes. This will depend also on the ratio of the cost and benefits that Russia has in defending Syria.

Finally, Russia has refused the US peace Plan regulating the relationship of Israel and Palestine, another key position in the M.E. that permit the access to the Mediterranean Sea. As the Kremlin questions the durability of the plan, that angers the Islamic population, it infiltrates in the matter and vetoes on the American deal. Lately Russia has agreed to Israeli requests and canceled arms sales to countries that poses a threat to Israel. On the other hand, Israel canceled arms sales that can damage Russia, such as Ukraine (*31).

A two folded strategy

Russia is notably expanding his network in Middle East, while maintain his control on the neighboring Caucasic area. In December 2019, the MoD announced the Caucasus 2020 plan: an annual plan of strategic drills that comprises 4,800 multi-scope military exercises and more than 9,000 practical combat training. The Caucasus plan will involve forces coming from 17 countries(*32) .
In this occasion the NATO has shown his power in the region with the Defender Europe 2020, an historical military drill involving 37,000 soldiers from 18 countries. The joint exercises will take place in Germany, Poland, Georgia and the Baltic States. Given the proximity to the Belarusian and Russian borders, Moscow will follow closely the operations of the Atlantic alliance(*33) .

The operativity on both sensitive areas such as Balkans and Middle East compose part of the bigger networking operation of the Kremlin, that can count on Beijing and forces in Latin America. In a moment of American foreign policy stall and internal EU complexity, Russia is reaffirming its sphere of influences in the critical areas of the world, posing itself as a new mediation option to be chosen.

Photo The Moscow Times

(*1) -Full Russian name: Kh-47M2 Kinzhal; US designation: Dagger

 (*2) – Independent defense analyst based in Moscow, part of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST).

(*3) -Source: The Barents Observer. Full article: https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2019/12/russias-top-general-indirectly-confirms-arctic-deployment-unstoppable-missile .

(*4) -See “The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile” section .

(*5) – Full description available on: https://rg.ru/2019/08/20/v-manevrah-centr-2019-budut-uchastvovat-voennye-deviati-stran.html.

(*6) -Source: https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/20191217449-UfpdV.html .

(*7) -Russia has a military base in Tartus (Syria) since 1971, that has been recently modernized .

(*8) -Source: https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/20191217449-UfpdV.html .

(*9) -Source: https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/7565201 .

(*10) -Source: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-military-russia-china/russia-china-iran-start-joint-naval-drills-in-indian-ocean-idUSKBN1YV0IB .

(*11) – Source:https://edition.cnn.com/2019/12/27/asia/china-russia-iran-military-drills-intl-hnk/index.html.

(*12) – Source: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-military-russia-china/russia-china-iran-start-joint-naval-drills-in-indian-ocean-idUSKBN1YV0IB.

(*13) – Strait between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, represents the only getaway from the Persian waters to the open sea.

(*14) – (Северный флот) Russian naval unit in the Artic region.

(*15) -Adapted version of the MiG-31BM able to carry and launch the Kinzhal hypersonic missile (Source: https://tass.com/defense/1106609) .

(*16) – Source: https://tass.com/defense/1106609.

(*17) -Source: https://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/missile-threat-and-proliferation/missile-proliferation/russia/kh-47m2-kinzhal-dagger/ .

(*18) -https://tass.com/defense/992214 .

(*19) -http://tass.com/defense/1013794 .

(*20) -Air Launched Ballistic Missile .

(*21) -NATO: Backfire. Supersonic, variable-sweep wing, long-range strategic bomber. In the M3 version, its top speed reach Mach 2.05 and its range increases of one third with respect to its predecessors. Source TASS: https://tass.com/defense/1017452 .

(*22) -Сухой Су-57, NATO: Felon .

(*23) -Source:https://militarywatchmagazine.com/article/russia-s-new-su-57-fighters-cost-just-35-million-each-are-fifth-generation-jets-really-cheaper-than-the-su-35 .

(*24) -Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act .

(*25) -Countering Turkish Aggression Act of 2019 .

(*26) -Graham-Van Hollen Turkey Sanctions Bill October 9, 2019. Full document available on: https://www.vanhollen.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/10.09.19%20Turkish%20Sanctions.pdf .

(*27) -Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/02/turkeys-arms-deal-with-russia-casts-shadow-over-nato-summit.html .

(*28-Russia sold S-300 missiles to Iran but suspended from 2010 until 2016 due to the embargo on Teheran; eventually continued the trades, following the JCPOA sanction lift. Source: https://www.utrikesmagasinet.se/analyser/2019/november/the-russia-iran-relationship-in-a-sanction-era/ .

(*29) -On March 2016 the Syrian army, supported by the Russian forces, recaptured the city of Palmyra, making a substantive change in the territory possessed by the Syrian government, and in the conflict .

(*30) -Located in: Qamishli, Raqqa and Tabqa .

(*31) -Source: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191213-israel-and-russia-coordinate-arms-sale-preventing-deals-with-iran/ .

(*32) -Source: https://tass.com/defense/1097181.

(*33) -Source: https://jamestown.org/program/moscow-reacts-warily-to-natos-largest-military-exercise-in-25-years/ .