The military exercises Slavyanskoe Bratstvo 2020 (Slavonic Brotherhood) began on 14 September at the Brest range and their first stage lasted until 25 September. It was reported that these are counterterrorism exercises that will engage 300 Russian troops from the Pskov 76th Air Assault Division.1 It was initially planned that the exercises will also feature Serbian soldiers, but due to the events in Belarus Serbia decided not to participate.2
The total number of engaged troops was reported being from 600 to 6,000 along with 500 pieces of military equipment.3 This means that we do not know exactly how many soldiers took part in these exercises. Additionally, despite initial information that only troops from Pskov will take part in the exercises, TV reports indicated that there were also airborne troops from Tula (possibly the 106th Airborne Division).4
It’s completely normal for countries to hold military exercises and it’s completely normal to hold them together with other countries. However, it was interesting to look at video footage from the exercises and compare it with the officially published information. As I already said, Slavyanskoe Bratstvo 2020 were portrayed as counterterrorism exercises. We can congratulate any measure taken to combat terrorism, however in this case there are several “buts”.
First, Russia refers to most of its military maneuvers as counterterrorism exercises. It is a noble goal and means that these exercises do not pose a threat to other countries. This is where we have our first BUT. Publicly available video footage from the exercises says something entirely different. Let’s start with the basics.
What exactly is terrorism? Terrorism is the use of violence to bring about change. Terrorists use killings, demolition, mutilation or the threat of violence to sow fear and terrorize individuals, particular groups of people, communities or governments in order to force them to give in to their demands. And these demands cannot be met in a legitimate way. The word terrorism is derived from Latin, meaning “to frighten”.
Terrorism is an intimidation tactic or the suppression of political opponents using force. It is necessary to differentiate between the terms “terror” and “terrorism” because terror is a privilege exercised by those in power (usually unofficially and secretly done by the state). Terrorism is a response from those oppressed and dissatisfied – it is a scare tactic that employs force to demand the regime to listen to the opposition.5
This means that terrorism cases can be various – from taking hostages which is done by one or several people, for instance, the hostage crisis in Paris when an armed man seized several hostages at a kosher market,6 to large terrorist groups attempting to seize territories in certain countries declaring these territories their own. One of the most notable examples of this is ISIS.7
Therefore, counterterrorism exercises focus on practicing freeing hostages or combating armed groups – groups of people that act outside of the jurisdiction of any recognized state that use terroristic methods, instead of democratic ones, to reach their goals.
According to the available information, the military exercises Slavyanskoe Bratstvo 2020 featured troops, armored equipment, helicopters and airplanes. This means that these exercises couldn’t possibly have been focused on freeing hostages. I cannot imagine a scenario where freeing hostages at a market would require the engagement of combat aircraft. The only thing a hostage could be freed of in this case is his life along with half of the apartment block. I found it rather interesting that Russia decided to engage two Tu-160 strategic bombers in the exercises.8
So, the next logical conclusion is that the exercises were aimed at combating large terrorist groups. This is where we have our next BUT. Are there any large terrorist groups in Europe? At least I haven’t heard of any.
Some of you may now say – don’t be silly, they are improving cooperation in combating terrorist groups in the Caucasus and other warm places! To this I will reply – stop being silly yourselves. What self-respecting soldier would prepare for survival in the Arctic by engaging in exercises in the deserts of Sakhalin or the jungles of Amazon? Elementary logic and the art of war tell us that exercises should resemble real circumstances as much as possible, first and foremost, when it comes to terrain. If there are plans to engage in military operations in the jungle, the exercises will be held in a jungle environment.
From this we can conclude that the real aim of the exercises was to prepare for military activities somewhere nearby, and the intended activities will not be of a defensive character.
In order to understand what the Russian troops were preparing for, it is necessary to look at what kind of training took place. If a soldier is taught to dig trenches, it is most likely that he is being prepared for defensive activities, but if he is trained to fire and cross obstacles it means he is being prepared for offensive maneuvers.
In one of the publicly available videos from the exercises it is revealed that the troops freed a waterworks facility (the correspondent misspoke saying that the facility was seized). First, an air strike was launched against the object and afterwards troops equipped with diving equipment were landed in the water from an airplane. The airplanes also dropped military equipment and troops on the ground.
We have now reached the biggest BUT, i.e. what are airborne units usually used for? I quote: “Experts note that the tasks of airborne troops have not changed significantly since the nineties. As before, the “winged” infantrymen are used to seize bridgeheads and different objects in the enemy’s rear.”9 The cited article also mentions that airborne troops can be used to launch unexpected strikes against illegal armed formations and enemy high tech companies.
What can we conclude from all this? The conclusion is quite logical and self-evident – airborne troops are not meant to maintain peace, free hostages, engage in defensive battles or even launch simple attacks. Airborne troops are used only for serious offensive operations. This means that every exercise that features airborne troops is aimed at practicing offensive elements.
Consequently, Slavyanskoe Bratstvo 2020 are not counterterrorism exercises, as propagated by Russian and Belarusian media outlets, but instead drills aimed at launching a military offensive or carrying out a single act of aggression. Considering the area of the exercises, they are targeting Poland and Lithuania. Of course, I don’t believe that Russian and Belarusian politicians are actually considering the idea of engaging in any sort of military activities in Poland or Lithuania because they are well aware that they would not be able to deal with the response to such an act.
It doesn’t matter what terms are used to mask the real intention of military exercises, the truth is that it is mere showing off, first and foremost, to the people of Russia and Belarus. In Soviet times, boasting and demonstrations of power were very beloved. Russian and Belarusian politicians are simply continuing this trend, as they have shown numerous times that they care deeply for their Soviet heritage.