Thousands of Russian troops swept across Siberia last Tuesday in the nation’s largest-ever war games. China too joined in making it a powerful show of burgeoning military ties between Moscow and Beijing amid tensions with the US.
The week long Vostok-2018 manouvres that end on Sept 17 will span vast expanses of Siberia and the Far East, the Arctic and the Pacific Oceans and involve nearly 300,000 Russian troops — nearly one-third of the country’s one-million-strong military. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu described the drills as even bigger than the country’s largest Cold War-era exercise, called Zapad-81, that put Nato allies on the edge.
“The manouvres are aimed at deterring the aggressive intentions of the US and Nato,” Ret Gen Leonid Ivashov said. He was quoted by the Interfax news as saying that the drills are “also a response to the US sanctions.”
With China’s about 3,200 troops, 900 combat vehicles and 30 aircraft joining the drills at a Siberian firing range, this reflects its shift toward a full-fledged military alliance with Russia. Mongolia also has sent a military contingent.
But the US sees little to be worried about a possible military alliance between Russia and China. “I think that nations act out of their interests. I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China,” pointed out US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis.
As the manouvres kicked off, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia on Tuesday to attend an economic forum in Vladivostok. Moscow and Beijing have forged what they described as a ‘strategic partnership,’ expressing their shared opposition to the ‘unipolar’ world.
Some experts pointed out that the US helped spawn closer Russia-China military ties by labelling them strategic competitors. “They feel they need to embrace to deal with the increasingly high pressure and containment from the US,” said Yue Gang, a Chinese military expert. He noted that China feels that Washington’s hostile attitude and actions, such as deploying the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea, relieve it of any need to consider US views when deepening strategic trust with Moscow.
From China’s perspective, the emerging military alliance with Russia sends a strong signal to the US and its ally Japan as Beijing moves to defend its interests in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, as well as Taiwan and the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.
For Russia, the increasingly robust alliance with China is particularly important in the light of the strained relations with the US and its allies and the looming threat of more biting US sanctions.
The drills come amid tensions over Syria, where the US and its allies threatened to launch strikes against President Bashar Assad’s government if it uses chemical weapons to reclaim control of the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib. Russia, which has waged a military campaign in support of Assad, strongly warned the US against military action in Syria.
‘Future World War’
The US and its Nato allies are closely eyeing the exercises for what they reveal about military cooperation between Russia and China and their mounting military might. “We’re watching it closely,” said Army Col Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman.
Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said that the training “fits into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence.” China has growing military capabilities and is playing an increasingly significant global role. “It’s important for Nato to engage with China,” she said.
Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said the games were a “preparation for a future world war”. “The army’s General Staff believes this will take place after 2020 in the form of either a global war or a series of conflicts with magnitude,” he said. “The enemy is the US and its allies. It’s not just about a sign or a message, but about a preparation for a real-life war of great magnitude,” he added.
Nato too shares the opinion that Vostok-2018 “demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”. But Russia has denied the drills are a cause for worry. “Vostok-2018 is far from NATO’s area of responsibility and does not affect the security of its member states,” Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova clarified.
Relations between Russia and the West declined sharply in 2014 with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since then, Moscow has increased the number of its large-scale military exercises in the Caucasus, the Baltic and the Arctic. At the same time the Kremlin has accused Nato of expanding westwards and threatening Russian national security.