In the wee hours, Putin orders impromptu Russian war games

The Black Sea naval operation, called for in an order delivered to the defense minister at 4 a.m., is seen by experts as a demonstration of Russia's growing capacity for quick responses.

Alexei Druzhinin/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS 2013 Summit in Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday. Mr. Putin’s spokesman says the Russian president on Thursday ordered a surprise, immediate military exercise in the Black Sea.

President Vladimir Putin has surprised Russian military leaders by issuing a snap order to initiate immediate Black Sea war games – which experts say is a sign that the country's armed forces are becoming capable of defending the country on, literally, a moment's notice.

The command was delivered in a sealed envelope to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at 4 a.m. Thursday, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

A note posted on Mr. Putin's official website said the exercises will be held in the Black Sea, and involve "up to 7,000 military personnel, over 30 warships based in Sevastopol and Novorossiisk, aviation, rapid deployment airborne troops, marines and the special forces of the General Staff.... The exercises' main objective is to assess combat readiness and coordination among the various branches of the Armed Forces."

Russian security experts appear to overwhelmingly approve the move, which they say is a sign that Russia's reformed and rapidly rearming military forces are shaking off their post-Soviet torpor.

They insist that, under international conventions, Russia is not obliged to inform NATO, or any neighboring countries, about war games that involve 7,000 or fewer personnel.

"Sure it was a sudden order. Good. That's the way things were done in the Soviet Union," says Viktor Baranets, a former Defense Ministry spokesman who now writes a regular security column for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.

"This is a perfectly normal practice. We aren't violating any agreements," he adds.

However, no one seems to know whether Russia should have informed Ukraine, on whose sovereign territory major elements of Russia's Black Sea Fleet are based at the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

"It is odd that no one seems to know if Russia is obliged to inform Ukraine about any sudden movements of forces that are based on Ukrainian soil," says Alexander Golts, deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an online newspaper.

"If you undertake exercises on your own territory, no one cares. But in the Black Sea region we have Georgia, with whom Russia fought a war in 2008, and these exercises will be staged partly from Ukrainian territory. It's a far more complicated thing," Mr. Golts adds.

Phone calls to the office of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the headquarters of Ukraine's Navy in Kiev on Thursday produced no answers. A secretary at the Navy's press office told the Monitor to "write a letter asking your question, and we'll get back to you."

Kiril Frolov, a Ukraine expert at the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow, says that all issues concerning Russia's freedom to act out of Sevastopol are covered by the 2010 Kharkov Agreement, under which Mr. Yanukovych agreed to extend Moscow's lease on the Crimean naval base for 25 years in exchange for discounts on the price of the natural gas that Russia sells to Ukraine.

"Russia doesn't have to warn Ukraine about exercises in the Black Sea," says Mr. Frolov. "The Black Sea is a zone of Russian interests, and the Kharkov Agreement envisages exactly this sort of situation."

Just last month Putin warned his military chiefs that external threats to Russia are on the rise, and the armed forces will have to undergo a "drastic upgrade" to meet the new challenges.

Earlier this year, Russia announced its biggest ever war games since the Soviet era to take place in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea.

Many analysts saw those, and a previous set of exercises in the Mediterranean, as a possible cover for a potential mass evacuation of tens of thousands of Russian citizens, and their dependents, from civil war-torn Syria.

But most experts say today's snap war games are just part of the newly capable and combat-ready Russian military, and everyone should just get used to it.

"We have been having almost nonstop exercises in the Black Sea lately, certainly on a bigger scale than in the past. But that's how it should be," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the independent Center for Political Assessment in Moscow.

"There is absolutely nothing unusual about this."

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