With International Army Games, Russia tries to show it's not 'a pariah state'
Members of China's team operate with their Type 96A tank during the Tank Biathlon competition at the International Army Games 2022 in Alabino, outside Moscow, Russia August 16, 2022. © Maxim Shemetov, Reuters

Russia’s eighth annual International Army Games, a sports event designed to showcase military skills and running from August 13-27, are taking place this year against the tense backdrop of war in Ukraine. FRANCE 24 spoke to Colonel Mark F. Cancian of the US Marine Corps (retired) and now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies about what he thought of Russia’s timing and what Moscow hopes to gain from the games.

These military exercises, started by the Kremlin in 2015 and planned by the Russian ministry of defense, usually involve around 30 countries and consist of 10 competitions that showcase several aspects of the participants’ military prowess.

The contests are designed to test a myriad of military skills, most notably armored vehicle mastery (tanks and infantry fighting vehicles), aerial combat and defense, naval warfare, artillery accuracy, military engineering and infantry capabilities.

Some analysts view Moscow’s insistence on hosting the games as an attempt to display strength and resilience despite its underwhelming performance and mounting casualties in Ukraine.

But according to British intelligence, the decision to go ahead with the exercises drew condemnation from several Russian military and security professionals, who found it inappropriate to commit forces to ceremonial military events while soldiers continue to suffer heavy casualties in Ukraine.

Igor Girkin, a Russian hard-liner, former FSB officer and a minister in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine’s east, has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the Kremlin’s handling of the war, according to Britain’s ministry of defense. Girkin, on August 19, posted on social media a comparison between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s admirable conduct during the war and contrasted it with Russia’s insistence on hosting the controversial games.

British intelligence has surmised that Russia is likely struggling to motivate the auxiliary forces it is using to augment its regular troops in the Donbas, saying commanders are probably resorting to direct financial incentives.

But despite flagging morale in the Russian army and an increasingly complicated situation in Ukraine, this year’s games have been a relative success, with 12 countries taking part including India, China and Iran.

FRANCE 24 asked Colonel Mark F. Cancian of the US Marine Corps (retired) and now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies what he thought of Russia’s attempt at a show of force.

FRANCE 24: Why did Russia hold this International Army Games amid a very difficult war?

I think there are a couple things going on. First, they customarily do it at the end of August, so, the message they are sending is, normal operations will continue despite the war. The Russians have been sending that message consistently. They have not mobilized all of their forces and they are still calling this a special military operation. So, their main message is that normal activities will continue, and this is part of that normal activity.

In fact, if they had cancelled the games, that would have been a huge signal that, in fact, the Russian military was at war and that this was an extraordinary situation. They have been trying very hard to not send that message. Besides, it’s a great sort of propaganda and an engagement tool. By inviting a dozen countries to come and visit and participate, there is an element of goodwill and a good connection that goes with it. Moreover, they've apparently used this for propaganda purposes, as there are some displays of destroyed Ukrainian equipment.

I was a little surprised, looking at the list again, that they got a pretty good number of countries to participate as I thought that maybe the numbers would be down substantially because of Russia's position as a pariah state. But that does not appear to have happened.

FRANCE 24: Do you think holding the International Army Games will have the desired effect? Does it win Russia back some of its prestige?

I think from the Russian point of view, this was a huge success. Or at least it appears to be – we'll see. But just holding the event with as many participants as they have is a great victory because it shows that the Russians are not a pariah, or at least, that the message that they're trying to send out is there.

Then the propaganda elements – of having all of these international media, from the various engaged countries, showing pictures of destroyed Ukrainian equipment and NATO equipment that's been captured – makes a point.

FRANCE 24: British intelligence indicates there's a lot of resentment among Russian and pro-Russian soldiers at the front. Given this lack of motivation and low morale, what could their reaction be to this diversion of resources?

It does divert some attention from the front line [but] probably not that much. Only a couple hundred soldiers are involved in the games. However, would the fighting Russian soldiers resent this kind of activity – since they are on the front lines, getting shot at, under-supported in comparison to this super group of soldiers competing, who clearly have the best of everything?

It certainly depends a lot on who the soldiers participating are. Very often, in Russia particularly, there's a special group that does these sorts of things – like the Moscow [Victory Day] Parade. There was a division in Moscow and all they did was ceremonies. So they were not a regular division. This could be the case with these participants … so there certainly could be feelings of resentment. On the other hand, if there are people in this group who fought in Ukraine, the Russians would highlight that to point out that these are not pampered soldiers, which would discourage feelings of resentment. So, it all depends on who is in these competitions.

From the point of view of the Russian government, this was a huge success. The goodwill, the ability to show off propaganda is important. I would have done the same thing, I think. So it is not wasteful, it is more of a diversion of effort. I think it reflects a policy decision that is arguably a pretty sensible one – from the Russian point of view, of course.

FRANCE 24: What are your thoughts on disobedience at the front, with reports of Russian and pro-Russian soldiers either quitting fighting or simply deserting?

There is no question that there are morale problems among the Russians. There's been so many reports about it, it's clearly a severe problem. On the other hand, the Russians are still fighting – they have not broken. They're clearly tired and they've run out of energy and they're not attacking anymore. But they're really mostly getting ready to fend off the Ukrainian counter offensive, whenever that happens.

In the early days of the war, there were so many reports that thought that the Russians will not be able to continue the fight. But now we're at the six-month point and the Russians are still at it.

There's something deep in the Russian psyche that allows them to keep fighting even in terrible conditions, even with lousy support. Looking back on what the Russians have done in the First and the Second World Wars, they have displayed an endurance that's hard for the West to understand.

There's a lot of incentive, and desire, to emphasise the negative about the Russians. So I think that those negative reports get highlighted and circulated, maybe with more attention than they deserve. So I think we have to be a little careful about that.