Kavkaz-2020: Russian military exercise sends message to South Caucasus
This week Russia and six other countries are carrying out a largescale military exercise called Kavkaz-2020 (Caucasus 2020). This exercise will take place predominantly in Russia’s Southern Military District, a region that stretches from Russian-occupied Crimea in the west, to the Caspian Sea in the east, and the volatile North Caucasus in the middle. Certain parts of the exercise will take place outside Russia’s borders as well.
According to media reports, approximately 80,000 soldiers will participate in the exercise. The vast majority of these troops are from Russia, but soldiers from Armenia, Belarus, China, Iran, Myanmar and Pakistan will also participate. These military drills will also involve 250 tanks, almost 500 armored personnel carriers, around 200 pieces of artillery, and ships from both the Russian and Iranian navies.
Russia is a member of the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Normally, under the organization's guidelines any military exercise exceeding 13,000 troops requires international observers from the OSCE. However, the Kremlin cleverly declared that the number of frontline soldiers participating in the exercise at any one time will not exceed the 13,000-troop limit so no OSCE observers will be present.
The scope of the Kavkaz-2020 is wide. There will be live-fire exercises with tanks and artillery. Paratrooper drops and amphibious landings will take place. There will be drills in electronic and drone warfare. Naval maneuvers will take place in the Black Sea and the Caspian.
It is no secret that Russia views the South Caucasus as being in its natural sphere of influence. Although much of the military exercise is taking place in the North Caucasus, Russia is actually sending a message to the South Caucasus — especially Azerbaijan and Georgia.
After Russia was caught resupplying Armenia with weapons over the summer when skirmishes broke out along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, Baku began to take a tougher approach against Moscow. In fact, Azerbaijan was invited to participate in Kavkaz-2020 but declined. Azerbaijan also recently denied access to its air space for Russian Air Force planes returning from Syria. This sort of rejection is something the Kremlin is not used to in its dealings with Azerbaijan.
There are two aspects of Kavkaz-2020 that should alarm Azerbaijan. Firstly, part of the exercise itself will take place outside Russia’s borders — in Armenia and with Armenian troops. About 1,500 Russian and Armenian troops will exercise together not far from the border with Azerbaijan. Coming on the heels of the fighting over the summer, and the recent frostiness in Moscow-Baku relations, a military drill like this will raise eyebrows in Azerbaijan.
Another aspect of the exercise that will likely ring alarm bells in Azerbaijan is the focus on the Caspian Sea. Russian Marines are rehearsing an amphibious assault on the shores of the Caspian just north of the border with Azerbaijan. China is sending troops to Russia’s Astrakhan region on the shores of the Caspian as part of the exercise. The Russian and Iranian navies are also training together on the Caspian Sea. While Azerbaijan and Iran maintain cordial relations, there is a lot of tension between the two countries below the surface. There is little doubt that Russia is using Kavkaz-2020 to send a message to Azerbaijan: Do not press your luck.
Also in the South Caucasus, Russia is conducting part of Kavkaz-2020 in the occupied regions of Georgia. In 2008, Russia invaded and has since illegally occupied 20 percent of Georgia’s territory to include the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The cover story for the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia was a large-scale military exercise in the North Caucasus. Understandably, Georgians are nervous of any largescale Russian exercise in their backyard.
Rubbing salt into the wound, Russia will send motorized rifle and tank battalions to train in the village of Dzartsemi in Russian-occupied South Ossetia. Before the war, Dzartsemi was an ethnic Georgian village. During the 2008 war it was razed to the ground. Today, Russia has turned the village into a training area for its military forces.
Another interesting aspect of Kavkaz-2020 to consider is not who is joining Russia but who is not. In addition to Azerbaijan declining an invitation for reasons already mentioned, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are only sending observers. Kyrgyzstan is not involved at all. This is interesting because all of these countries are part of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization — which can loosely be compared to the Russian equivalent of NATO.
Coming on the heels of the fighting over the summer, and the recent frostiness in Moscow-Baku relations, a military drill like this will raise eyebrows in Azerbaijan.
India was invited but then declined to participate in the drill. The official excuse from Delhi was that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic made the logistics for Indian soldiers too difficult. However, the real reason is probably India’s unhappiness with Pakistan plus China’s participation.
Russia wants to show the world that even during a global pandemic it is business as usual when it comes to its military might. Having China’s participation increases Moscow's clout.
Russia is within its right to conduct largescale military exercises within the framework of international law. The US and NATO routinely carry out exercises too. In fact, this week the US is leading a multinational military exercise in Ukraine.
But certain aspects of Kavkaz-2020 are questionable — such as the military drills on occupied Georgian territory. Also, it is when you place Russia’s Kavkaz-2020 into the larger context of regional aggression — whether it be in Georgia, the Black Sea or Moscow’s support for Armenia in the conflict with Azerbaijan — that there is cause for concern.
Keep an eye on Kavkaz-2020.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey