Putin projects Russia’s naval power with surprise Black Sea exercises

Georgia “alarmed” by nearby operation involving ships, aircraft and thousands of troops

Russian president Vladimir Putin and defence minister Sergei Shoigu oversee large-scale military exercises at the Raevsky training ground in Krasnodar region. Photograph: Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool

Russian president Vladimir Putin and defence minister Sergei Shoigu oversee large-scale military exercises at the Raevsky training ground in Krasnodar region. Photograph: Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool

Sat, Mar 30, 2013, 06:00

Russian president Vladimir Putin has inspected major naval exercises in the Black Sea that have alarmed some of Russia’s neighbours and underlined its desire to project military power towards the Middle East and Mediterranean.

Accompanied by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Mr Putin flew in a helicopter over the coastline where manoeuvres were taking place yesterday, just a day after apparently surprising the minister and his forces by ordering the drills.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Putin had given the order from his presidential jet while flying back to Russia from a summit in South Africa in the early hours of Thursday morning.

“It really was a snap test, and at 4am the defence minister was brought a sealed envelope, which he opened, and he read the command,” Mr Peskov said, adding that because the exercises would involve fewer than 7,000 troops, Russia did not have to notify other nations of its plans.

The Kremlin said the operation would also involve “more than 30 ships based in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, aviation, airborne troops for rapid deployment, marines (and) special forces” belonging to Russia’s foreign military intelligence service.

The chief of the military’s general staff, Valery Gerasimov, told Mr Putin a convoy of 80 armoured vehicles had quickly arrived at the exercise area from their base hundreds of kilometres away.

“And how many got stuck on the way? Tell me honestly,” Mr Putin said. “Not a single one,” replied Gen Gerasimov.

The exercises are intended to test the combat-readiness, deployment-speed and flexibility of Russia’s forces, which analysts say are weak points of a vast military that Mr Putin wants to streamline and modernise.

Mr Shoigu said the military had not performed satisfactorily in similar unplanned manoeuvres in February, but that this time they had operated “more or less faultlessly”.

Russia is intent on maintaining tight security around its Black Sea littoral ahead of the Winter Olympics next year, which will be based in the coastal resort of Sochi and the nearby Caucasus Mountains.

Restive republics
Insurgents regularly clash with security forces in the restive Russian republics in the Caucasus, and relations between Russia and Georgia are still tense following their brief 2008 war.

Moscow now recognises two Georgian regions – Abkhazia on the Black Sea and South Ossetia in the mountains – as independent states, and has thousands of troops stationed in each one.

Georgia expressed “grave concern” over Mr Putin’s decision to hold the exercises “in close proximity to the land and maritime borders of Georgia” and without revealing “the duration, exact area and locations of force deployment”.

“Georgia is alarmed by the unexpected, provocative activity of the Russian troops, as well as by the potential use of the facilities, weaponry and/or personnel of the occupation forces of the Russian Federation within Georgia’s internationally recognised borders”, Tbilisi’s foreign ministry said.

Moscow last week criticised Georgia and its ally the United States for holding a joint military exercise in the Black Sea state, in which some 400 US marines have been involved.

Ukraine reaction
In Ukraine, government officials said they were not worried by Russia’s manoeuvres, but opposition politicians protested about the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s long-term use of a base on Ukraine’s Crimean coast.

Military experts said Mr Putin not only wanted to keep Moscow’s armed forces on their toes, but remind Russia’s neighbours and the world that it possesses naval power capable of defending the Kremlin’s interests beyond the country’s southern shoreline.

Russian naval ships regularly visit their base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast – Moscow’s only military facility outside the former Soviet Union – in what is seen as a show of support for embattled Kremlin ally Bashar al-Assad.

Tartus could be closed to Russia if rebels topple Mr Assad, but Mr Shoigu said recently that Moscow intended to establish a permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean.