Moscow integrated Tu-95MS / Bear and Tu-22M3 / Backfire bombers into a “large-scale” exercise with Tajikistan this week.
Bears and Backfires (and Tu-160 / Blackjacks) participated in strikes on Syrian targets last November, and we’re accustomed to Russian bombers probing U.S. and NATO air defenses. But this might be the first time the Russians have deployed strategic bombers for training over a former Soviet / CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization partner.
If not, it is uncommon.
This somewhat dubious distinction might indicate that Kremlin concern about Tajikistan’s security (and its impact on Russia’s) is a notch above worries about other allies right now.
The Bears flew from their base at Engels in Saratov Oblast by way of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to get to Tajikistan. The TVZvezda video below shows one hooked up to a tanker aircraft.
The Backfires operated from Tajik airfields along with 30 Russian Su-24M and Su-25SM aircraft and combat helicopters, according to TVZvezda.
The “anti-terrorism” exercise began on 14 March, and involved roughly 2,000 troops from the two sides, news agency TASS reported.
The combined force, including troops from Russia’s 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, VDV, and VDV Spetsnaz, blocked and destroyed a large notional motorized insurgent group that violated the country’s border. The VDV conducted tactical airborne and air assault operations against the notional enemy along the Tajik-Afghan border.
Central MD commander General-Colonel Vladimir Zarudnitskiy and Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo observed the exercise.
So why the bombers? First, it’s good to get flight familiarization over terrain where one might fly a real combat mission one day. Second and more important, bombers armed with cruise missiles make a more immediate and tangible impression than equally threatening submarines cruising in the Black Sea or Med. It’s almost the inverse of Syria where subs got the first action but LRA also had the chance to conduct real-world operations.
What of Tajikistan, the ostensible reason for the entire military display?
For Jamestown.org, Paul Goble has written about its vulnerability to Islamic State or Taliban forces. But, he says, Turkmenistan might actually be a more vulnerable and more attractive target. It has natural gas for the taking and it lacks a fairly strong and proactive ally like Russia.
Also writing for Jamestown, Steve Blank speculated that Tajikistan could become a “fourth front” for Russia, along with Ukraine, Syria, and the North Caucasus. Tajikistan is a key part of Moscow’s “domino theory.” If Dushanbe falls into hostile hands, the rest of Central Asia and Russia itself become more vulnerable.
Come what may, an exercise involving strategic aviation just beyond Russia’s periphery is an interesting and rather unnoticed event that we could see again.