Russia’s Armed Forces have commenced Okeanskiy Shchit (“Ocean Shield”) 2019 naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, under the direction of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov. The exercises, running from August 1 to 9, also involve platforms from the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS). Okeanskiy Shchit 2019 is bringing together 49 warships and combat vessels, 20 support vessels, 58 VMF and VKS aircraft, and 10,634 military personnel. Important elements in the exercise suggest it is by no means a standard Russian naval exercise. Moreover, it most likely involves some degree of refining lessons drawn from Russia’s military operations in Syria (Tvzvezda.ru, August 1).
The exercise is significantly larger than its predecessor, staged on September 1–8, 2018, in the Mediterranean Sea. Okeanskiy Shchit 2018 involved 26 naval ships and vessels (including two submarines) as well as 34 VMF and VKS aircraft. Last year’s exercise focused on air defense, anti-submarine-sabotage and mine sweeping. Okeanskiy Shchit 2019, in contrast, is not only larger but appears to be focused on disrupting an enemy air campaign and attacking an adversary naval grouping. The naval group participating in the exercise was formed on the basis of the ships that took part in the Main Naval Parade in St. Petersburg and Kronstadt, on Navy Day, July 28. It is also likely tied to ongoing Russian military activities in the Black Sea (see EDM, August 5) as well as preparations for the annual operational-strategic exercise in September (this year, Tsentr 2019), and/or possibly Union Shield 2019 (also next month and jointly with Belarusian units) in the Western Military District (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, August 1; Mil.ru, May 15).
Okeanskiy Shchit 2019 confirms statements by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that these exercises will be held on a regular basis. Small missile ships and boats reportedly rehearsed defeating a hypothetical enemy at sea by launching electronic anti-ship cruise missiles. The daily Izvestia noted that the exercise utilized a “single information circuit,” implying continued experimentation with multi-platform operations in a single information space; such approaches were first seen in Russian operations in Syria (Izvestia, August 2).
Following the successful mock strikes against the enemy’s naval grouping, these same platforms were used to launch anti-aircraft weapons to repel a retaliatory strike. Importantly the exercises were conducted in a “difficult jamming environment using electronic warfare countermeasures on both sides.” The presence of Russian electronic warfare (EW) systems shows continued attention to rehearsing and planning for combat against a high-technology adversary as well as recognition that such a conflict will feature a highly contested electromagnetic spectrum (Izvestia, August 2).
According to the press office of the Baltic Fleet, “As part of the maneuvers, several naval groups have sailed to the Baltic Fleet’s combat training ranges for tactical exercises. They include the corvettes Boiky, Stoiky and Steregushchiy, the guard ship Yaroslav Mudry, the small missile ships Passat, Geizer, Serpukhov and Mytishchi, the missile boats Chuvashia and Morshansk, the large amphibious assault ships Alexander Shabalin and Kaliningrad, and other ships and support vessels.” The focus of the naval component is consequently on smaller surface vessels equipped with high-precision strike systems (TASS, August 5).
The Russian defense ministry explained that the main idea of the exercise is to develop further the use of inter-naval groupings and refine coordination with the VKS. However, it appears that the exercise also involved rehearsing EW attacks and countermeasures, conducting various naval and air force operations, including amphibious landings, in a heavily contested information space, as well as examining the ways and means to disrupt a massive enemy air attack (Izvestia, August 1).
One commentary in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer noted, “Baltic Fleet corvettes work out joint maneuvering in the water area, pose electronic interference, [and] conduct intra-ship exercises for survivability. The crews of the Boiky, Steregushchiy and Stoiky at the naval training grounds, in cooperation with the crews of four IL-38N anti-submarine aircraft of the Pacific and Northern fleets, are improving their search for submarines of a conventional enemy” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, August 6). It is standard practice in Russian military exercises on this scale to build multiple vignettes into the overall exercise scenario in order to test the deployed forces and assess how best to respond in numerous crises situations. The location of these maneuvers, in the Baltic Sea, indicates an exercise scenario clearly envisaging the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces as the hypothetical enemy.
The exercise itself and its timing, following on the heels of the Main Naval Parade on July 28, was also calculated to showcase a resurgent Russian navy, with its current focus on smaller vessels and the use of these as platforms for high-precision strike systems (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, August 6; Rossyiskaya Gazeta, August 1). Okeanskiy Shchit 2019 and its first iteration, in September 2018, also suggest growing interest on the part of the General Staff to integrate VMF and VKS platforms to conduct operations against a high-technology adversary in an EW-contested operational environment.
Moscow frequently claims that such exercises are not intended as a threat to its neighbors. Yet, the reported monitoring of the exercise by US, Polish and Swedish reconnaissance aircraft underscores the anxiety created by such exercises and their possible implications for Baltic security. These Russian exercises are growing in scale, testing potential approaches to conflict with a hypothetical opponent in the region that can only fit the US and NATO, while sending unclear strategic messages. It is likely to fit into General Staff thinking on conflict escalation control and the idea that a conflict erupting in another theater against the US or the wider North Atlantic Alliance could merit horizontal escalation, thus commencing operations in the Baltic theater. Whatever the real intention Moscow has in staging these exercises—beyond, of course, training and testing its military forces—these will continue to merit close scrutiny in the US and among Washington’s NATO allies.