At the end of October, the Russian Armed Forces staged a military exercise in Crimea to rehearse the defense of the occupied peninsula. The military deployed forces from the Southern Military District/Joint Strategic Command (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK) to the Opuk training ground in Crimea, where they practiced the defense of the territory in a variety of tactical episodes involving the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), Ground Forces and naval infantry. The strategic command-staff exercise (strategicheskiye komandno-shtabnyye ucheniya—SKShU) involved 8,000 personnel from three combined-arms armies (CAA), the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla as part of a much wider test of combat readiness in the Southern OSK.
According to the press service of the Russian defense ministry, the purpose of the drills was to practice the defense of Crimea. Although centered on the Opuk training ground, it was conducted across much of the peninsula, with simultaneous episodes at training grounds in the Southern OSK. “As part of the exercise, the Black Sea Fleet naval infantry, [riding] aboard BTR-82As [armored personnel carriers], under the cover of aviation and naval forces of the fleet, landed from large amphibious ships, fought for the landing, occupied the coastal area and moved deep into the positions of the conditional enemy,” the defense ministry stated. In turn, units of the Black Sea Fleet coastal defense, as well as tank, artillery and motorized rifle units, suppressed enemy artillery and attacked the simulated enemy on the coastline. Toward its conclusion, participating units changed firing positions and regrouped missile, artillery and tank units.
Russian media outlets highlighted the context in which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Ukraine have staged numerous military exercises close to Russia’s borders. Maneuvers involving Ukraine’s Armed Forces are also used to justify an uptick in Russian military activity and training. Russian military commentators connect these exercises and the increase in NATO reconnaissance flights in the Black Sea as part of the justification to hold defensive drills in Crimea. Equally, such exercises by units of Russia’s Armed Forces are part of a wider pattern in the combat training year, the pinnacle of which was the Zapad 2021 combined strategic exercise (sovmestnoe strategicheskoe uchenie), on September 10–16. Zapad 2021 involved extensive planning and preparatory, parallel and follow-on military exercises, with aspects of the testing and experimentation recurring in maneuvers staged later.
Last week’s SKShU in Crimea was, thus, part of a broader combat readiness test conducted across the Southern OSK. Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the Commander of Southern MD/OSK, led the SKShU, involving battalion tactical groups and military units from the OSK all training in a single tactical plan. The broader SKShU was held at 25 combined-arms training grounds located in the Astrakhan, Volgograd and Rostov regions, in Kuban and Stavropol regions, in the republics of the North Caucasus, in Crimea, as well as at Russian military bases in Armenia and the (Russian-occupied) Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also involved most of the Black Sea Fleet.
As part of the exercise, coastal forces practiced anti-sabotage defense of a section of the coast as well as countering amphibious assault groups and naval airborne forces. The tasks assigned to Russian naval infantry centered on seizing and holding a bridgehead. Fire support was provided by the missile cruiser Moskva, the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, and the small missile ship Ingushetia, which had returned from almost four months’ service in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the missile boats Naberezhnye, Chelny and R-60. After suppressing enemy coastal defenses with naval fires, the participating forces rehearsed an amphibious assault, backed by naval aviation and close air support provided by the VKS. Crews of Su-24MRs carried out additional target reconnaissance and designation for aviation strike groups. Aerial strikes on anti-sabotage targets were conducted by Su-30SM platforms. More than 30 aircraft of operational-tactical aviation from the Southern OSK and naval aviation and air defense of the Black Sea Fleet were involved.
After destroying the main centers of resistance, the large landing ships Saratov, Novocherkassk and Tsezar’ Kunikov attacked the remaining targets as well as facilitated an amphibious assault. Forpost and Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) adjusted artillery fires. Mi-8AMTSh transport and assault helicopters, supported by Ka-52 and Mi-28N attack helicopters, ensured the insertion of tactical airborne assault forces to the rear of the enemy. The hypothetical enemy forces were represented by a coastal defense formation of the army corps of the Black Sea Fleet, as well as tank and motorized rifle units of a CAA in the Southern OSK. Following the successful landings, the air force and navy worked on issues of organizing joint operations. At various stages of the exercise, aviation and naval units alternately acted on either side of the exercise scenario as blue and red, ensuring they all gained experience of a two-way principle in performing combat training tasks. This also facilitated the adoption of “non-standard and unconventional decisions by the commanders”.
Following the conclusion of the SKShU, around 2,000 motorized rifle personnel from the 49th CAA in the Southern OSK, stationed in Stavropol Territory, began a march to the point of permanent deployment (punkt postoyannoy dislokatsii—PPD). Along the way, more than 1,000 kilometers away, units and attached subunits practiced repelling enemy air attacks and assaults on the reconnaissance and sabotage group. As Captain 1st Rank (ret.) Vladimir Pasyakin observed in his commentary on the exercise in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, the main point of the SKShU was not its numbers, but that it fully exploited new command-and-control systems and operational experience gained in Syria.
Russia’s last combat training year has focused on the Western strategic direction, with Zapad 2021 as its cornerstone. Yet the Russian military has also carried out substantial combat-readiness checks, including force buildups, on the border with Ukraine this past spring. Those activities continue, with the latest SKShU, which contained a Crimea dimension, illustrating how Moscow uses these temporary deployments and drills to message Western capitals and warn Kyiv not to overstep Russia’s red lines. While it remains unlikely that the Ukraine crisis will escalate in the near term, Moscow is clearly conveying a signal that its Armed Forces are ready for any contingency.
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