Putin orders surprise Black Sea military exercises

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered unscheduled military exercises involving thousands of troops and dozens of ships in the Black Sea region to test their battle readiness, the Kremlin said.

The order was presented to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in a sealed envelope at 4am (8am Singapore time), his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies, adding the exercises would involve 36 ships and up to 7,000 troops.

Mr Peskov indicated that the surprise order by Mr Putin was aimed at testing out the battle readiness of the Russian armed forces and said Moscow was not obliged to warn its partners of the plan.

"Today at 4 am the president of the Russian Federation and supreme military commander (Putin) gave the order to the defence minister to begin major military exercises in the Black Sea region," Mr Peskov said.

"We are talking about major exercises, intended as a check," he added.

Mr Peskov said that Mr Putin had already warned the armed forces that they would be subject to sudden checks of their battle preparedness.

"If we remember what the president said at the council of the defence ministry a little time ago, then we will remember his words that the practice of sudden checks will continue," Mr Peskov added.

Mr Putin drew up the sudden order overnight while flying home from South Africa where he attended the summit of BRICS emerging economies in Durban.

Mr Peskov said 36 ships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet's base in the Ukrainian Crimean city of Sevastopol and the Russian port of Novorossiisk would be involved in the exercises.

Aviation, paratroopers and special forces would also be involved, Mr Peskov said.

"According to international practice, exercises involving up to 7,000 people do not require us to inform our partners in advance," he said.

Key littoral states on the Black Sea include Turkey, Ukraine and Russia's foe Georgia with whom Moscow fought a brief war in 2008.

Mr Peskov said the exercises would take place on three military test ranges on Russian territory.

Russia has embarked on a major campaign of military reform after its war with Georgia showed up weaknesses in the reactivity of the armed forces despite a military victory.

The exercises represent a major test for Mr Shoigu, one of Putin's closest allies who became defence minister late last year after previous incumbent Anatoly Serdyukov was implicated in a graft scandal.

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