Russia plans biggest war games since Soviet era

Some see the naval exercises scheduled later this month as cover for a massive evacuation of Russian citizens from war-torn Syria.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
People walk along the Admiralteyskaya Embankment in front of a Russian naval ship in the center of St. Petersburg in July. Russia is planning a massive naval exercise – its largest war games since the Soviet era – for later this month.

The Russian Navy has announced that it will hold its biggest war games since Soviet times in the Mediterranean and Black seas later this month.

The ambitious exercises, which will involve ships from all four major Russian fleets, are a sign of growing confidence on the part of Russia's military as it begins to enjoy the benefits of President Vladimir Putin's huge budget allocations for renewing and reequipping all branches of the armed forces.

The purpose of the war games will be to strengthen integration between different types of forces and gain practice with major military deployments outside Russia's immediate neighborhood, the Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

As part of the maneuvers, naval ships will arrive at an "unprepared" coast in the Russian northern Caucasus region to take amphibious troops onto transport vessels.

"The primary goal of the exercise is to train issues regarding formation of a battle group consisting of troops of different branches outside of the Russian Federation, planning its deployment and managing a coordinated action of a joint Navy group in accordance with a common plan," the ministry's statement said.

The participating ships, it said, will be drawn from all of Russia's four major naval formations: the Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and Black Sea fleets.

Some experts suggest the war games may be cover for an increasingly nervous Moscow's preparations to evacuate Russian citizens and their dependents from war-torn Syria.

About 9,000 Russians are registered with the Russian Embassy in Damascus, but some experts say the full number may be 30,000 or more. Over the nearly half a century that Moscow has enjoyed good relations with Syria, thousands of Russian women have married Syrian men and moved to the country. Many of them may urgently demand to return with their children to Russia if the situation turns critical.

This week the Russian Navy refreshed a fleet, including several huge amphibious assault ships capable of carrying thousands of people, which it had deployed to the eastern Mediterranean last summer.

Experts say the replacement fleet dispatched this week is of similar makeup, with at least five huge troop-transport ships at its core.

As part of Russia's eight-year, $659 billion rearmament program, the Navy is slated to receive 50 new warships by 2016, including new Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines – a third of which entered service last weekend – 18 major surface warships, and dozens of special purpose and support vessels.

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