The Bear in the Mountains: An Examination of the Russian Peacekeeping Force in Karabakh

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As the ink of another peace deal dries, Russian soldiers are already on the move. Almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are on their way to the region with the stated mission of preventing another clash like the one the world was witness to for almost two months. While the burnt hulls of T-72s and the mangled bodies of fallen Armenian and Azeri soldiers are still being retrieved from the field, Russia is already declaring its dominance. As Russia doesn’t have the best reputation, and arguably the worst of any developed nation in terms of peacekeeping abilities, it stands to question, “who are these new faces?”

The 15th Independent “Peacekeeping” Brigade is the primary formation being sent to the region. This unit differs very little in composition from the standard Motorized Rifle Brigade in the Russian army; Infantry battalions, armor, light artillery, and supporting elements designed to facilitate ground seizure and defense in combat. In addition, they are not new to foreign intrusions: they are recorded to have been involved in the seizure of Crimea in 2014. While it can be noted that they lack the howitzer artillery normally present in a combat task force, the presence of the 102nd Military Base at Gyumri will fill this gap should it become needed, and most likely act as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) if more firepower is desired.

As with most of their modern task forces, Russian units are complimented with additional attachments. These come in the form of intelligence teams, the infamous Spetsnaz, GRU, UAVs, Electronic Warfare (EW) teams, and artillery/sniper elements. Of serious concern are the inclusion of GRU counter-intelligence units. As renowned security analyst and former British Army officer George Adamson has duly and repeatedly noted, “the GRU are not noted for their historic contribution to stabilization.”

As far as equipment and armaments, the force seems to be a mixture of ground-based motorized rifle and airborne “VDV”-style units. An analysis of uniforms and equipment would suggest the involvement of the 31st Air Assault Brigade. This unit had been noted to be training for “peacekeeping operations” as recently as last month. While the Russians have been surprisingly transparent about their manpower and vehicle numbers, it’s unclear what the command structure of these deployed units will be.

While the aforementioned units come from the Central Military District of Russia’s Armed Forces, the 102nd is a part of the Southern Military District. This adds a layer of confusion as to who is in charge of the units on the ground. In addition to this, the Rules of Engagement (RoE) have not been defined transparently. This silence seems to have been purposeful so as to give the Russians room to maneuver when, undoubtedly, an incident arises and innocent people are killed. As with the 2008 war, the Russians are known for their “shoot first, and maybe ask questions later, if at all” approach, even with civilians.

But why are they there?

Of course, the natural answer is the peace treaty. Any security-minded individual will be quick to reply that the Russians are not, even historically, known for their love of peace and stability. The downing of one of their helicopters in the region was largely overlooked by many. However, this incident was used as a launchpad from which came the force we see now.

On November 8, a Russian Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter was downed by what was reported to be a man-portable air defense (MANPAD) system. This shoulder-fired rocket struck the aircraft during flight and in the ensuing crash, two of the crew were killed with one more surviving. Their speedy response to this incident and rapid deployment, even using Georgian airspace, leads many to question if this was not planned. As Adamson notes, they have been very quick to “to assert their hegemony in what they claim to be the post-Soviet sphere of privileged interest.”

The 15th Brigade is not known for being a highly agile or “high-readiness” unit, so their quick response, as well as the rapid coordination with air transportation assets, is deeply suspect. Historically, coordination between ground and air elements, particularly in combat or urgent situations, has been a shortcoming of the Russian military. This, combined with the peacekeeping training the unit had been undergoing, signals to the fact that the downing of the helicopter and the subsequent response was pre-planned.

In traditional GRU fashion, the killing of some of their comrades to further their expansion is expected. For the good of the cause, a helicopter crew paid the price, but these type of false flag operations are part and parcel of the total Russian way of war. They needed this excuse. The downing of a UN helicopter in 2001, the bombing of Gori in 2005, all deniable incidents, but a part of a larger picture. Russia wanted in on this from the beginning, but needed a reason, or, more accurately, a casus belli. Russian black ops, often labeled as their own word “maskirovka”, is key to their success in the field.

However, there is one more dynamic on this new battlefield. In most of the post 2000s and in the wake of the Chechen war operations of the late 1990s, Russian forces almost always included local forces in their task forces. In 2008 in Georgia, in 2014 in Ukraine, and in Syria to this day, Russian forces shield their own troops with a meat shield of local militias and paramilitary units.

In most western nations, the civilian populace is not at all happy with the bodies of their country’s finest coming home in caskets draped with the national flag. Russia is no different. The people do not want young Russian boys coming home in bags, and as a reaction to this, they typically pad their forces with people they can throw away and bear the brunt of any hurtful offensive. For example, one will notice that many of the rosters of the Russian dead from 2008 never mention the thousands of Chechen, Circassian, and Cossack mercenary casualties. However, they do not have this luxury in Karabakh.

There are no padding forces in Karabakh, and the Russians will have to face any threat on their own, under the watchful eye of the Turkish and even the larger world’s microscope. This is not something Russia can handle, as any level of scrutiny of their operations reveals undoubtedly questionable issues. The peacekeeping force will be under the greatest of analysis, and most likely not be able to adhere to the stringent rules of such an operation that many forces from the West have been contented with for decades. It will only be a matter of time until reports of abuse, murder of civilians, and destruction of property are reported as the Russians expand their empire into the South Caucasus.

By Michael Godwin

Image source: Reuters/Francesco Brembati

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