Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Russia in Review: Global Military Ties

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Author: Mason Clark

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is expanding its security partnerships and avenues for arms sales through the 2019 International Army Games. The Kremlin also leverages the military competition to advance internal military reforms and promote its military both at home and abroad.

The Kremlin is using its 2019 International Army Games to build global military ties, broker new arms sales and support its military reform priorities. The Russian Defense Ministry hosted its 5th Annual International Army Games from August 3 - 17, 2019.[1] The Army Games are widely described as the “military Olympics” with events ranging from a tank biathlon to a piloting competition for UAVs.[2] The Kremlin has steadily expanded the games from 16 states competing in 13 events hosted in Russia in 2015 to 37 states competing in 32 events hosted across ten countries in Central and East Asia in 2019.[3]

The Kremlin exhibits arms for export and develops ties with foreign militaries at the Army Games.[4] It provides both commonly exported and new military equipment to visiting teams, including its domestic-only Ratnik-2 Infantry Combat System in 2019. It also stages demonstrations of new weapons systems, such as its public debut of the Su-57 fighter jet in 2017.[5] Russia has successfully expanded the participant pool to include additional militaries from South America, Africa, and Asia.[6] Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and India hosted events for the first time in 2019 while Jordan, Cuba, Mali, Congo, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and Cambodia were all first-time participants.[7] Key U.S. adversaries - such as China, Iran, and Venezuela - are major participants in the games, hosting competitions and competing in large numbers of events.[8]

The Kremlin’s expansion of the 2019 Army Games reflects evolving internal priorities in Russia. The Russian Armed Forces is concerned about retaining popular support amidst decreasing public approval of its deployment to Syria.[9] The Games thus attempt to glamorize the military to a domestic audience, with live broadcasts of events and a free-to-enter “fan zone” with opportunities to learn military skills and interact with military equipment.[10] The Games introduced new events focused on the Arctic and Special Forces, two areas repeatedly highlighted for development by the Russian Armed Forces.[11] The Kremlin also increased participation from non-military formations in Russia, including the Interior Ministry, National Guard, and the Federal Security Service.[12] It may intend to leverage the event to strengthen its internal security apparatus against growing displays of dissent against Russian President Vladimir Putin.[13]

The Kremlin will likely use the Army Games to lay the groundwork for future military cooperation agreements and arms deals as well as informal security partnerships across the globe. It will attempt to use these deals to provide a revenue stream that mitigates sanctions by the West. The Games may also increase the capabilities and knowledge exchange between key rivals to the U.S. such as Russia, China, and Iran.

[1] [“International Army Games 2019 Program,”] Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[2] “Russia’s ‘Military Olympics’: Highlights of 2018 International Army Games,” TASS, August 9, 2018, https://tass(.)com/defense/1016646; Andrew Roth, “The Russian Military is Building a Mini-Reichstag at Its Amusement Park So That Kids Have ‘A Real Building to Storm’,” Washington Post, February 22, 2017,; “Army Games 2019,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[3] The host countries in 2019 include Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Mongolia, India, and China. See: “Army Games 2019: Location of the Contests,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,; Andrew Roth, “Russia Holds its First International Army Games,” Washington Post, August 8, 2015,
[4] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,; Mark Galeotti, “The International Army Games Are Decadent and Depraved,” Foreign Policy, August 24, 2018,
[5] Commonly exported pieces of equipment used in the Games include the AK-74, T-72B3 Main Battle Tank, BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle, S-300 Surface-to-Air Missile System, and several variants of military aircraft. See: “Army Games 2019,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,; “Foreign Personnel Test Russia’s Ratnik Combat Outfit at International Army Games,” TASS, August 8, 2019, https://tass(.)com/defense/1072552; Rebecca Wright, Oren Liebermann, Darya Tarasova, and Mary Ilyushina, “Russia’s International Army Games Showcase Military Might,” CNN, August 14, 2017,
[6] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,
[7] Chen Zhuo, “New Highlights in International Army Games 2019,” China Military Online, July 5, 2019,
[8] Greece is the sole state from NATO participating in the Games. It solely competed in cultural rather than military events. Turkey, Slovakia, and the U.S. sent observers to the 2019 Army Games. See: “Four NATO Countries Delegate Observers to 2019 Army Games,” TASS, August 1, 2019, https://tass(.)com/world/1071404; “Army Games 2019,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[9] The Russian Defense Ministry founded a Military Political Directorate in July 2018 in part to coordinate activities to create a “patriotic consciousness” among the civilian population, and several high-level officers have discussed the important of ensuring civilian support for the military in future conflicts. Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov stressed the importance of improving the “ideological, moral, and psychological stability of the [Russian] population” to maintain support for military action in a speech in March 2019. See: Valery Gerasimov, [“Vectors of Development of Military Strategy,”] Red Star, March 2, 2019, http://redstar(.)ru/vektory-razvitiya-voennoj-strategii/?attempt=1; “Fewer Than Half of Russians Support Syria Campaign, Poll Says,” Moscow Times, May 6, 2019,; [“Syria,”] Levada Center, May 16, 2018, https://www.levada(.)ru/2018/05/16/siriya/; Mason Clark with Catherine Harris, “Russia’s New Tool for Wielding Information,” Institute for the Study of War, January 15, 2019,; A.A. Bartosh, [“Friction and Turbulence in Hybrid War,”] Military Thought, January 2018,; V.A. Kislev, [“What Wars the Russian Armed Forces Will Be In,”] Military Thought, March 2017,
[10] [“Fans Club International Army Games 2019,”] Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[11] The Army Games held ‘Sayan March’ in late February 2019, testing Arctic combat capabilities as a component of the Kremlin’s ongoing preparation to conduct military operations in the Arctic. See: “Sayan March,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, Alexander Begej, and Darina Regio, “Russia in Review: March 15 - 26, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, March 26, 2019, The ‘Polar Star’ Special Forces competition included air landing, battlefield search-and-rescue, and nighttime operations, reflecting Russia’s increasing focus on special operations integrating lessons learned in Ukraine and Syria. See: Catherine Harris and Mason Clark, ‘Russia in Review: Russia’s Lessons Learned in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 9, 2018,; “Polar Star,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[12] “Four NATO Countries Delegate Observers to 2019 Army Games,” TASS, August 1, 2019, https://tass(.)com/world/1071404.
[13] Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock, “Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy,” Institute for the Study of War, August 6, 2019,