Russia’s eighth annual International Military Games, a sporting event designed to showcase military skill and taking place August 13-27, is taking place this year against the tense backdrop of war in Ukraine. FRANCE 24 spoke with Colonel Mark F. Cancian of the US Marine Corps (retired) and now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about his thoughts on Russia’s timetable and what Moscow hope to win games.
These military exercises, launched by the Kremlin in 2015 and planned by the Russian Defense Ministry, usually involve around 30 countries and consist of 10 competitions that showcase several aspects of the participants’ military prowess.
The competitions are designed to test a myriad of military skills including proficiency in armored vehicles (tanks and infantry fighting vehicles), air combat and defense, naval warfare, artillery precision, military engineering and infantry capabilities.
Some analysts view Moscow’s insistence on hosting the games as an attempt to show strength and resilience despite its disappointing performance and mounting losses in Ukraine.
But according to British intelligence, the decision to go ahead with the drills has been condemned by several Russian military and security professionals, who have deemed it inappropriate to commit forces to ceremonial military events while soldiers continue to endure heavy strains. losses in Ukraine.
Igor Girkin, a Russian hardliner, former FSB officer and minister of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, has become an increasingly outspoken critic of Russia’s handling of the war. the Kremlin, according to the UK Ministry of Defence. Girkin on August 19 posted on social media a comparison between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s admirable conduct during the war and contrasted it with Russia’s insistence on hosting the controversial games.
British intelligence speculated that Russia was likely struggling to motivate the auxiliary forces it uses to augment its regular troops in the Donbass, saying commanders were likely using direct financial incentives.
But despite low morale in the Russian military and an increasingly complicated situation in Ukraine, this year’s games were a relative success, with 12 participating countries including India, China and Iran.
FRANCE 24 asked Colonel Mark F. Cancian of the US Marine Corps (retired) and now Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies what he thought of Russia’s attempted show of force.
FRANCE 24: Why did Russia organize these International Military Games in the middle of a very difficult war?
I think there are several things going on. First, they usually do this at the end of August, so the message they send is that normal operations will continue despite the war. The Russians constantly sent this message. They haven’t mobilized all their forces and they still call it a special military operation. So their main message is that normal activities will continue, and that is part of that normal activity.
In fact, if they had canceled the games, it would have been a huge signal that, in fact, the Russian army was at war and this was an extraordinary situation. They tried very hard not to send this message. Plus, it’s a great kind of propaganda and engagement tool. By inviting a dozen countries to come and visit and participate, there is an element of goodwill and good connection that goes with it. Moreover, they apparently used it for propaganda purposes, as there are exhibits of destroyed Ukrainian equipment.
I was a little surprised, looking at the list again, that they got quite a good number of countries to participate, because I thought the numbers might be drastically reduced due to the position of the Russia as a pariah state. But that doesn’t seem to have happened.
FRANCE 24: Do you think that holding the International Military Games will have the desired effect? Does this give Russia back some of its prestige?
I think from the Russian point of view it was a huge success. Or at least it seems to be – we’ll see. But just holding the event with as many attendees as they have is a big win because it shows the Russians aren’t outcasts, or at least the message they’re trying to get across is there.
Then the propaganda elements – having all these international media, from the various countries involved, showing images of destroyed Ukrainian equipment and captured NATO equipment – makes a point.
FRANCE 24: British intelligence indicates that there is a lot of resentment among Russian and pro-Russian soldiers at the front. Given this lack of motivation and low morale, what might be their reaction to this diversion of resources?
It diverts some of the attention from the front line [but] probably not that much. Only a few hundred soldiers are involved in the games. However, would the fighting Russian soldiers be unhappy with this kind of activity – since they are on the front line, getting shot at, under-supported compared to this super group of competing soldiers, who clearly have the best of everything ?
It certainly depends a lot on the soldiers involved. Very often, especially in Russia, there is a special group that does this stuff – like the Moscow [Victory Day] Parade. There was a division in Moscow and they only did ceremonies. They were therefore not a regular division. That could be the case with these attendees…so there could definitely be feelings of resentment. On the other hand, if there are people in this group who fought in Ukraine, the Russians would highlight it to emphasize that they are not pampered soldiers, which would discourage feelings of resentment. So it all depends on who is in these competitions.
From the point of view of the Russian government, it was a huge success. Goodwill, the ability to show propaganda is important. I would have done the same, I think. So it’s not a waste, it’s more of a diversion of effort. I think that reflects a political decision that probably makes quite good sense – from a Russian point of view, of course.
FRANCE 24: What do you think of the disobedience at the front, with reports of Russian and pro-Russian soldiers who have either stopped fighting or simply deserted?
There is no doubt that there are morale problems among the Russians. There have been so many reports about this, it is clearly a serious problem. On the other hand, the Russians are still fighting – they haven’t broken up. They are clearly tired and they have no more energy and they no longer attack. But above all they prepare to repel the Ukrainian counter-offensive, whenever that happens.
At the beginning of the war, there were so many reports that thought the Russians could not continue the fight. But now we are after six months and the Russians are still there.
There is something deep in the Russian psyche that allows them to keep fighting even in terrible conditions, even with bad support. Looking back on what the Russians did in World War I and World War II, they showed a toughness that the West finds difficult to understand.
There are many incentives and desires to emphasize the negative side of Russians. So I think these negative reports are highlighted and publicized, perhaps with more attention than they deserve. So I think we have to be a little careful about that.