Military Exercises Are Tearing Up Russia’s Infrastructure
When 500+ armored vehicles hit the road, watch out
Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin has been racing to bolster the Russian military’s fighting abilities with frequent, large-scale exercises near his country’s western borders. But one recent story from Glavny, which covers western Russia, indicates that the exercises are taking a toll on infrastructure and local governments which are swarmed by armored vehicles.
In recent days, 574 vehicles of the crack 74th Guards Air Assault Division set off at night from its base at Pskov near the Estonian border for a training site at Strugi Krasnye some 40 miles to the northeast. The lumbering convoy headed up a cracked, pitted, asphalt-covered federal highway, tearing up the road and inflicting more than half-a-million dollars in damage.
Twenty of the division’s vehicles broke down during the journey for a failure rate of 3.5 percent, which isn’t bad, demonstrating the division’s ability to move on short notice with relatively few mechanical losses. But the damage upset local authorities. “It’s scary to imagine what will happen when they go back,” Simeon Gutsu of the Pskov’s region Commission for Road Safety told Glavny.
It’s a small anecdote, but given the scale of Russia’s recent exercises — 2017’s Zapad exercise involved some 100,000 troops — involving heavier vehicles than what the 74th Guards operates, it’s likely that wear and tear isn’t contained to Pskov. This is in a country ranked 123rd in the world in the quality of its road infrastructure according to the World Economic Forum, tied with Sierra Leone, Gabon, Venezuela and Nepal. However, the bulk of the Russian army moves by rail, where Russia performs well.
Nevertheless, the news spread to Russian military bloggers who were impressed by the division’s readiness, given the 74th Guards’ role as an elite unit designed to fight at a moment’s notice. They were less impressed with the damage. “So that’s who spoils the roads,” one blogger stated. “It’s familiar,” came a reply. “Especially after summer 2014.”
Above — a Russian soldier peeks out from a BMD-2. Vitaly V. Kuzmin photo. At top — a Russian BTR-80. Andrew Butko photo via Wikimedia
The Russian Airborne Troops, or VDV, is among the most prestigious and demanding professions in the Russian military — and is much sought-after for soldiers seeking to make their careers, even more so than Spetsnaz special forces units underneath the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate.
The reason behind the prestige is because unlike U.S. airborne forces, the Russian version “fills another niche … that of a reliable enforcer for politically sensitive operations,” Lester Grau and Charles Bartles of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office noted in their 2017 book The Russian Way of War.
“This role began in Soviet times, with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 to quell the Hungarian uprising,” the authors add. “VDV units began quietly occupying Hungary weeks before overt Soviet action began, and after the commencement of hostilities they gained a reputation for quickly and efficiently seizing objectives in an urban battle space to which conventional Soviet commanders were not accustomed.”
In 2014, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division rushed from Pskov to southern Russia for the surprise invasion of Crimea. The division’s soldiers were among the first to invade the peninsula, and its troops have died fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
Given the Kremlin’s focus on the airborne, units such as the 76th Guards train at higher rates and are a priority for new equipment. They are heavily armored compared to their Western airborne counterparts, reflecting the Soviet-era “deep battle” doctrine emphasizing airmobile vehicles capable of being carried and dropped by transport planes.
The bulk of these machines comprise BMD-type fighting vehicles and BTR personnel carriers. However, the Russian military has recently sought to strengthen its airborne units with non-airmobile main battle tanks. Which also, of course, put a heavier burden on Russia’s strained roads.