The Airborne Forces have recently returned to the focus of the media. March 1 Airborne Forces Commander Colonel General Georgy Shpak announced that the General Staff had decided to deprive the Airborne Forces of its peacekeeping functions, and to assign them combat missions in Chechnya and Central Asia.

The Airborne Forces will be reduced by 1,500 troops in 2004, Shpak said. He added, “this time the Airborne Forces were spared, and cuts will be small.” According to the Commander, the reduction will be applicable to the 10th airborne regiment deployed at the Russian military base in Gudauta (partially), the 237th regiment in Pskov, and one unit deployed in Podolsk. However, previous reports had asserted that the aforementioned units would be reduced by 5,500 servicemen.

Either way, Airborne Forces will still consist of four divisions and one brigade after cutbacks. Their overall strength will total 32,000 servicemen, or approximately 4% of the entire Armed Forces. Incidentally, after the radical reduction of the Armed Forces between 1997 and 1999, the Airborne Forces made up only 2.5% of the overall strength of all Armed Forces. According to official information, the current authorized strength of the Airborne Forces is 37,500 servicemen. Almost 15% of them are peacekeepers operating overseas.

By 2005, all airborne units will be relieved of peacekeeping functions. Colonel General Yury Baluevsky, Director of the Main Operational Department and Deputy Chief of the General Staff, announced that airborne units would be stationed in some areas as separate “troops of permanent peacetime readiness” for the sake of improving combat readiness of the Armed Forces. This is relevant for the Central Asian area (Volga-Ural Military District). The already existing group will be reinforced in the South Eastern area (North Caucasus Military District). The General Staff expects that this group will be based on mobile troops including airborne units.

What will be the tasks of these groups? Judging from statements by military leaders we can say that these tasks will be definitely be combat oriented, associated with operations in Chechnya. The Airborne Forces will conduct search and reconnaissance operations, including those aimed at capture of militant leaders, and will assist the reconnaissance teams of the Main Reconnaissance Department of the General Staff and Federal Security Service.

Unlike other troops, the Airborne Forces group in Chechnya will not be reduced substantially. According to Shpak, their strength in the republic will fluctuate between 4,000 and 4,500 men. The General explains that “by late March the separate battalion of the 31st brigade deployed near Argun will be withdrawn from Chechnya, and the 247th airborne assault regiment of the 7th Novorossiysk division will be replaced with a reinforced battalion of the 108th regiment of the same division.”

According to Shpak, the presence of group forces including airborne units in Chechnya “enables administrative leaders in districts and entire republics to work with greater stability.”

Thus, airborne units of permanent readiness will remain in Chechnya and fulfill combat missions there for a few years on a rotation basis, as long as there is instability in the republic.

The Airborne Forces will also be assigned some other functions. According to recent media reports, the General Staff plans to send an airborne contingent of 3,000 men to Tajikistan in spring to parry possible large-scale aggression against the Central Asian republics of the CIS. With reference to a top-ranking representative of the General Staff, the media reported that the contingent would be formed from a number of regimental task forces assigned by various Airborne Forces units.

Later official representatives of the Airborne Forces staff hurried to deny the report, saying that there was no plan to send 3,000 men to Tajikistan. However, they did not deny that the Airborne Forces, as the reserve of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, were prepared to operate in any hotspot of the Russian Federation and CIS. Thus, the Airborne Forces may be used in Tajikistan too. This republic is a member of the Collective Security Treaty, and also has signed numerous agreements with Moscow according to which official Dushanbe may receive military assistance. Either way, there is already no doubt that Moscow plans to use the Airborne Forces to resolve conflicts in the CIS. Valery Nikolaenko, General Secretary of the Collective Security Council, confirmed this assumption, in his interview to the Internet information site Strana.ru. There he announced that airborne units, the basis of mobile forces being established in Russia, can and should be included into coalition groups currently organized in different military arenas, including Central Asia. Nikolaenko emphasizes that the Airborne Forces can be airlifted anytime to any hotspot in Russia and the CIS to fulfill their tasks. Thus, their participation in CIS coalition forces is quite justified. According to Nikolaenko, such actions are founded legally on the Collective Security Treaty and the agreements “On status of forces and material of collective security system” and “On deepening military-political integration in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty and measures for building of regional collective security systems” signed last October.

However, when exactly would the assistance of the Airborne Forces be needed? Military sources report that, according to operational information, the situation in the region may worsen in late April or early May as a result of interventions by large groups of Islamic terrorists from Afghanistan and Tajikistan attempting to break through to Uzbekistan. At present in Tajikistan there are structures operating in the framework of united Airborne Forces of CIS, the 201st mechanized infantry division, as well as the forces and material of the Moskovsky, Pyandzhsky, Itum-Kalinsky, Khorogsky, and Ishkashimsky border guards detachments, plus the Armed Forces of Tajikistan itself including a number of mechanized infantry brigades being trained by Russian officers.

The experience of the last few years showed that these forces were sufficient to keep the situation under control. These forces will probably be enough again. However, analysts of the General Staff say that this year militants will attempt to persuade the population to take part in the terrorist actions. Whereas in Tajikistan this scenario is unlikely, in Uzbekistan it is quite realistic, because there the population is discontent with the authorities and is living hand to mouth. At this point we need to take into account the contradictions which really exist between official Dushanbe and Tashkent.

It is known that Uzbekistan implemented visa regime in relations with almost all of its neighbors (except for Kazakhstan). The entire Tajik-Uzbek border is covered with minefields. However, this measure does not prevent trespassing. According to available information, a network of the so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is in opposition to Karimov, is operating illegally in Uzbekistan itself. Some of the underprivileged rural population (primarily Tajiks and residents of the Ferghana Valley) support the religious activists. Militants may succeed in provoking popular unrest, as already happened in the Surkhandarya Region.

Recently the web site Fergana.ru published a map showing training camps for Uzbek extremists in Tajikistan: near Garm, Dzhirgatal, Faizabad, and Tavildara. Russian observers do not rule out that this information may be true. At this point official Dushanbe does not completely control remote mountainous districts. It has been reported that in spring forces of the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan will move north from these camps, towards Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. If the local population supports these forces, a civil war is possible. Then the local republics will hardly be able to do without Russian soldiers. This is probably why the media have started talking about the possibility that Russian airborne units will be sent to Central Asia.

Thus, reforming the Airborne Forces and setting up new tasks and functions for them is associated with a difficult situation in the south of the country and in some hotspots of the former Soviet Union where Russia’s interests need to be protected. Under these circumstances Moscow has nothing left except to organize and reinforce mobile groups ready for action at any time.