A Russian tank goes through its paces. The Vostok 2018 war games start on Tuesday. Photo: AFP/Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency

“A powerful signal to the whole world,” is how media have defined the colossal Vostok 2018 military drills, which start on Tuesday in Russia’s Far East and continue until Sept. 17.

War games are annual affairs, but this year’s Vostok (“East”) involves an extraordinary number of Russians, and also sees, for the first time, the participation of Chinese and Mongolian forces. “The maneuvers will be unprecedented scale in terms of the area covered, and the amount of troops involved,” said Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu.

Against the backdrop of Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West and US sanctions increasingly pressuring Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Vostok 2018 is seen by many as a reinforcement of Moscow’s anti-American partnership with Beijing.

No enemy in sight

Large-scale military drills take place in Russia each year in one of the country’s four military districts – Western, Caucasus, Central and Eastern. Last year’s Zapad (“West”) exercises, which took place on Russia’s western border, were clearly aimed at Eastern European NATO members.

This year’s drills take place thousands of kilometers away from NATO’s sphere of influence – where no clear enemy is in sight.

The exercises are the largest since the Cold War-era Zapad drills of 1981 – making Vostok 2018 the biggest maneuvers since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The numbers are astounding: 300,000 troops; more than 1,000 planes, helicopters and drones, up to 80 combat and logistic ships and about 36,000 vehicles. Both the Northern and Pacific fleets will be deployed in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Strait and the Sea of Japan.

It is the first time an annual exercise has involved two entire military districts – Central and Eastern – as well as encompassed multiple strategic objectives.

A display of military might is necessary, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, due to the escalating confrontation with the West. “The country’s ability to defend itself in the current international situation, which is often unfriendly and aggressive towards our country, means the exercise is justified,” Peskov said.

No Sino-Russian alliance

Vostok 2018 defies Moscow’s growing international isolation and reassures Russians that Russia is not alone. China is joining the war games, deploying 3,200 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and 30 aircraft that will be simulating combat in the Tsugol military range, in Russia’s Far Eastern Trans-Baikal Region.

The participation of China is a striking break from the not-too-distant past. In Soviet days, Vostok drills served, in part, to prepare Moscow’s forces for a possible war with China – after all, in the 1960s and 1970s, Beijing-Moscow relations were roiled by frequent clashes along their long, shared frontier.

However, since Gorbachev normalized relations with Beijing in the late 1980s, bilateral military cooperation has been upgraded.

“Military cooperation with China is not a new thing,” said Viktor Litovkin, head of TASS military news editorial office. “Russia has been selling our weaponry to China for a long time. Chinese officers study in our military schools and academies.”

China’s participation sends a strong message to a shared geopolitical opponent.

“It is a direct signal to Trump and those people in the Congress and in the Senate who have interests in weakening China and Russia, by imposing high tariffs on imported goods and sanctions.” said Litovkin.

“The drills will show that out of necessity, Russia and China can join forces against a third, powerful state which strives for global hegemony.”

However, according to Litovkin, the development of Russo-Chinese relations in Vostok 2018 should not be overestimated. In fact, there is no official military alliance between the two. “While Eastern European armies joined Soviet forces during the Zapad 1981 drills were bound by the Warsaw Pact, there is no such mutual defense agreement between China and Russia,” he pointed out.

According to Andrey Frolov, editor-in-chief of Eksport Voruzhenii (Arm Exports) magazine, Russo-Chinese joint exercises represent a convergence of interest. “China and Russia are not allies, nor do they have common military plans,” he said. “They just happen to be on the same side of the barricades, as they both face US pressure.”

The drills also offer China – which lacks recent combat experience – the opportunity to learn from Russian expertise won in Syria. “These exercises will strengthen Russo-Chinese relations, military cooperation but also increase the capabilities of our military forces in countering security threats and gain invaluable combat experience,” said Kui Yanwei, Beijing’s military attache in Russia.

Litovkin also mentioned previous smaller scale Russo-Chinese military exercises within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a loose Eurasian alliance. The last SCO drills took place last August in the Russian military range of Chebarkul with the participation of Indian and Pakistani troops, among others.

“Vostok 2018 can be seen as a PR opportunity for leading SCO members to boost the reputation of the organization,” added Andrey Frolov.

Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, stressed that the exercises were “exclusively defensive in nature” and are not aimed against any specific state.

Arms, deployability and prowess

As if to prove this, foreign observers and military attaches from NATO countries have been invited to attend and press tours have been organized for foreign journalists. “Russia complies with the principles of transparency, openness and goodwill,” said Russian deputy minister of Defense Aleksandr Fomin during a special MoD briefing.

Gerasimov announced that Russia’s most advanced weaponry will be in action: Su-34 and Su-35 fighters jets; Mi-28 and Mi-35 combat helicopters; T-72, T-80 and new T-90 tanks. Russian warships will display “Caliber” missiles as well as a new class of vessels.

According to Litovkin, one of the main goals of Vostok 2018 is demonstrating the coordination and mobility of the Russian army, as well as the preparedness of its reservists: a total of 21 formations from 10 Russian regions have been mobilized across more than 7,000 kilometers.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the scale.

“Can you imagine what it takes to mobilize 300,000 troops and deploy them to the Russian Far East in such a short time?” asked Litovkin. He pointed out that it will showcase the Northern Fleet’s ability to reach the Okhotsk Sea from its bases in Murmansk, navigating eastward for thousands of miles through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean on Russia’s northern rim.

Conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia made clear multiple deficiencies in Moscow’s armed force, notably the lack of initiative and command and control in shifting circumstances. Since then, Russia’s forces have undergone radical reforms and benefitted from consistent investments.

According to Gerasimov, the maneuvers will closely mirror real combat situations in “a complex and rapidly changing environment,” requiring the adoption of “non-standard solutions.”

Everything suggests that Vostok 2018 will offer Russia the opportunity to both test and showcase its improved capabilities – reasserting once again its status as a military superpower that can deploy in the east as well as the west.

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