Russia's military is undergoing a rapid modernization, and its growing capacity to strike fast and deep into enemy territory poses an existential threat to international security. What are the current and future capabilities of the Blue and Black Berets, and are they operating under the guise of humanitarian aid?
On 21 May 2015, Russia dispatched another “humanitarian aid” convoy to Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region – its 27th to date. Weeks earlier on 9 May, Russia showcased its new military technology during the annual Victory Day Parade. An examination of the technology displayed during the festivities shows an increased emphasis on rapid-reaction capabilities; though seemingly unrelated, an obscure article written in 2013 shows just how interrelated these two events are.
In 2013, Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov penned an article in The Military-Industrial Kurier, a Russian military news publication. In the article General Gerasimov writes, “The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian [emphasis added by author], and other non-military measures...” In describing these “humanitarian” measures the general states that the military should use forces designated as “peacekeepers” as a final resort to achieve success in a conflict. Their mission will be “to disengage conflicting sides, protect and save the civilian population, cooperate in reducing potential violence and reestablish peaceful life.” With the aforementioned convoys, Russia has already shown an interest in conducting humanitarian operations, but not in the overt military guise as suggested by General Gerasimov.
Also emphasized in General Gerasimov’s article is a rapidly-deployable military. As a historical reference the General cites the Soviet-Afghan War, during which the U.S.S.R. made extensive use of quick-response tactical paratroops; he says that “at their heart were speed” and “quick movements.” He also argues that such a force is necessary for the modern battlefield. The concern is that while Russia will likely use such forces to respond to actual crises Moscow could also manufacture its own crises through subversive means, allowing a military force u to expand its influence in a particular area under the guise of peacekeeping, as well as discourage NATO attempts to confront the force. Much of the technology displayed at the 9 May parade appears tailored for the Russian military units most suited for rapid-response operations – the Airborne Troops and the Naval Infantry.
V is for Airborne
Unlike their Western cousins, the Russian Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-desantnye voyska; VDV) are a separate branch of the Russian armed forces. The VDV is widely considered to be one of the most professional units in the Russian military. VDV officers receive higher pay than their counterparts in the Ground Forces, and even VDV conscripts are of higher caliber than those in the Ground Forces. The VDV – or “blue berets” – have a near-mythical status in Russian culture, and are highly respected by the public. On 2 August of every year, Russians even celebrate VDV Day.
In addition to being cultural icons, the VDV also have considerable political sway mainly because of close ties between its current commander, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, and President Putin. General Shamanov has a controversial military record, as demonstrated by him punching his commanding officer in the face for refusing a transfer, showing no regard for civilian casualties during his campaigns in Chechnya, and using VDV spetsnaz (Russian special operations forces) to hinder a criminal investigation involving his nephew. Though the Ground Forces commanders distrust General Shamanov because he is VDV, officers in the VDV also resent him for managing to avoid service during the Soviet-Afghan War, a conflict in which the U.S.S.R. relied heavily on VDV forces. However, his close relationship with Putin has managed to protect him. When Putin, as prime minister in 1999, called for Russian military action in Chechnya it was General Shamanov who secured a Russian victory in the war-torn republic, catapulting Putin’s name into the spotlight for the presidency. Thereafter the Russian government mostly protected the VDV from budget cuts and drastic reorganization as well as the unit’s worst fear: absorption into the Ground Forces. Last year Gen. Shamanov announced that the VDV would double in size to 72,000 personnel by 2019.
The VDV maintains its own specially-designed armored vehicles. It primarily uses the BMD-series of vehicles which are of lighter weight than the BMP and BTR armored vehicles employed by the Ground Forces, allowing them to be dropped from the air even with troops inside. VDV armored vehicles are also amphibious, giving troops the advantage of quick insertion onto the battlefield and immediate combat readiness - exactly the kind of forces General Gerasimov described in his 2013 article. This year the VDV received new BTR-MDM Rakushka armored personnel carriers (APCs) and BMD-4M amphibious infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), both of which Russia displayed in the 9 May parade. Gen. Shamanov, however, has also shown an interest in incorporating more wheeled armored vehicles into the VDV. These include the Tigr-M SPM-2 and the KamAZ Typhoon, both of which were on display at the parade.
The VDV has a history of carrying out peacekeeping operations. During the 1999 Kosovo conflict VDV paratroopers attempted to seize the airport in the Kosovan capital Pristina, putting them in conflict with British paratroopers under NATO authority also attempting to secure the airport. Should Russian and NATO military personnel again find themselves in the same peacekeeping environment additional confrontations could be possible. As for rapid reaction, VDV spetsnaz were reportedly among the “little green men” deployed to Crimea in 2014, and Russia already has plans to make them the core of an emerging rapid-reaction force designed for swift deployment to any conflict zone.
Officially, Russia uses its Naval Infantry – the “black berets” – as shock troops to conduct operations in preparation for the arrival of Russian Ground Forces. The Naval Infantry only possesses 12,000 personnel and usually performs commando-style raids, however they still possess the rapid-response capabilities that would be necessary to execute the humanitarian operations described by Gen. Gerasimov. This gives rise to the possibility that Russia could deploy its marines to a crisis situation via amphibious landing, allowing the Kremlin to exert political pressure simply because of their presence. Russian marines displayed their rapid-response capabilities when in 2014, like the VDV, they were reportedly among the “little green men” deployed to Crimea. Despite this, the Naval Infantry lack the VDV’s political influence and independence.
The Naval Infantry’s amphibious landing capabilities are what make it an optimal force for a rapid-response peacekeeping operation. The primary vehicle used for this is the Zubr-class landing craft air cushioned (LCAC), which Russia conducted exercises for in the Baltic Sea during the Victory Day festivities; the drills included live-fire exercises against aerial targets, damage control, radiation exposure, and chemical and biological protection. The Zubr can land on over 70 percent of the world’s shorelines, and can carry up to 130 tons of cargo. The Zubr involved, named the MDKVP Eugene Kocheshkov, is based in Kaliningrad along with a Naval Infantry brigade. Were a Baltic state to become a target for Russian humanitarian intervention, Kaliningrad would be a likely staging ground.
In discussing rapid-reaction amphibious landings, Russia’s attempt to purchase Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France is also noteworthy. Though France suspended the sale of two Mistral ships to Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis, the fact that Russia was attempting to acquire the vessels in the first place further highlights an increased emphasis on rapid-response. The Mistral is an important power projection tool capable of transporting helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and up to two medium-size hovercraft which in turn can transport armored vehicles, tanks, and troops ashore. Not surprisingly, the VDV have been practicing boarding and disembarking from amphibious assault ships. Mistrals can also serve as offshore hospitals and command posts.
Looking to the Future
The Russian military appears to have long-term plans for a rapid-reaction military force. Russia currently intends to produce a new transport plane known as the PAK-TA, a unique, supersonic transport aircraft will reportedly allow the Russian military transport up to 200 tons of military equipment anywhere in the world in seven hours. Russia plans to produce 80 PAK-TAs by 2024.
Russia’s ongoing information warfare campaign can be seen as setting the stage for a peacekeeping endeavor undertaken by rapid-reaction military forces. In addition to Ukraine, primary targets for Russian information warfare include the Baltic States and other former Soviet republics such as Moldova, where Russia could use this tactic to incite pro or anti-Kremlin elements. If either side triggers violence, a Russian military force – most likely from the VDV or Naval Infantry – could arrive to “mitigate” the crisis, though such a force would need to move quickly if there is a risk of NATO intervention. Russia could also achieve a propaganda coup by offloading blame for the crisis on NATO, similar to what Putin has already done in regards to the Ukraine conflict.
Manufacturing a crisis may not be necessary in all cases. Currently, Russia’s longtime port in Syria, Tartus, is in an uncertain situation given continued fighting between the Syrian regime and groups such as the Islamic State (ISIL). If the situation deteriorates enough, Russia could be forced to dispatch a rapid-reaction force to secure one of its last bastions of influence in the Middle East.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons