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5 things to know about Russia’s Vostok-2018 military exercises

- September 13, 2018

Military analysts around the world are keeping a close eye on Russia’s annual fall military maneuvers, as this year may turn out to be the largest post-Cold War show of force. Vostok-2018 kicks off this week in Russia’s Far East and the Pacific Ocean, along with auxiliary exercises before and after the main event.

The big news this year is the addition of joint exercises with China. What do these military exercises entail, and what do you need to know?

1. What are these war games?

The Vostok exercise is part of an annual rotating series of large-scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. “Vostok” means east; last fall’s Zapad-2017 took place along Russia’s western border.

Similar major strategic operational exercises took place each fall throughout the Soviet period as well. However, unlike past military-readiness drills, the Defense Ministry has billed Vostok-2018 a strategic maneuver exercise, in which the forces are divided into two groups that engage each other rather than fighting an imaginary opponent, as was the case in all previous iterations.

2. What is Russia’s main goal for Vostok-2018?

According to the Foreign Ministry’s official statement, the goals of the exercise include improving the Russian military’s ability to exercise command and control of joint military operations across multiple services in the eastern theater of operations, to move troops across long distances to the Russian Far East, and to coordinate operations between ground forces and the Pacific Fleet.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced “comprehensive snap checks of the Central and Eastern military districts, the Northern Fleet, the Airborne Troops, and long-range and military transport aircraft” began Aug. 20. It is also likely a nuclear forces exercise will take place at some point during this period, though it will not be linked to the Vostok exercise.

3. How big is big?

Official sources say the total strength of Russian forces involved in the exercise will be 300,000 military personnel, more than 1,000 aircraft, and 36,000 pieces of equipment including 1,100 tanks and more than 50 combat ships, making this the largest military exercise on Russian territory since at least 1981.

The actual size of the exercise is likely to be a fair bit smaller than advertised. The Russian military has a history of inflating the number of participants in previous Vostok exercises by including entire brigades and divisions in the count, even when active involvement was limited to one battalion or regiment from that unit.

According to Russian military expert Alexander Golts, it would be impossible to hold an exercise as large as advertised without tying up the limited transportation links between central Russia and the Far East for several weeks. Nevertheless, analysts expect Vostok-2018 to be larger than last year’s Zapad exercise, which was constrained by the OSCE Vienna Document.

4. Why are Chinese troops involved?

In addition to Russian forces, Chinese and Mongolian forces will participate in the exercise on Russian territory. China will be represented by 3,200 personnel using 900 pieces of equipment and 30 aircraft. Inviting Chinese forces will help assuage any lingering Chinese concerns about the Russian military preparing for a future fight with China.

It also makes it possible for Vostok-2018 to be the first Vostok exercise to openly advertise an interstate-conflict scenario, in this case between two coalitions of states. Previous Vostok exercises were all officially described as aimed at eliminating terrorist groups or illegal armed formations, so as to avoid having to defend a scenario where Russian troops were exercising to protect their country against what could only be seen as a Chinese invasion.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Defense, the goal of Chinese participation is to further Russian-Chinese relations and strengthen the strategic partnership between the two states. The exercise will also provide the Chinese military, which has not been involved in combat operations in several decades, an opportunity to learn combat tactics and strategy from recent Russian experiences fighting in Syria.

5. What is the political impact?

Russia no doubt welcomes this signal of Chinese support at a time when political tensions with NATO and the United States show no sign of abating. Chinese participation in Russia’s major annual military exercise is a signal that Beijing is ready to develop a closer partnership with Moscow if relations with the United States continue to deteriorate.

Chinese official media have been uncharacteristically ebullient about the political meaning of this exercise, trumpeting a deepening strategic partnership — for the first time openly highlighting that China’s partnership with Russia is intended to challenge the hegemonic role of the United States in the international system.

At the same time, one exercise, even a large and politically significant one such as Vostok-2018, stops short of any covert declaration of a bilateral military alliance. Nor is Vostok-2018 a rehearsal for a large-scale global war. As was the case last year with the Zapad exercise, when many analysts overstated that size of the exercise and discussed the likelihood it would serve as cover for a Russian occupation of Belarus and/or a new invasion of Ukraine, threat inflation serves only to discredit the analysts and foster media fatigue about the real threats posed by the Russian military and its gradually developing partnership with China.

Despite the China buzz, Vostok-2018 is thus just another in a rotating series of annual capstone military exercises. Its main political significance comes from the signaling by both Russia and China about the possible emergence of a strategic partnership, aimed at countering the threat that both countries feel from continued U.S. dominance of the international system.

Military analysts are tracking the daily Vostok-2018 roundup news and will do a deep dive into the military significance after the exercise has concluded. It’s likely that the exercise will be another strong demonstration of the Russian military’s ever-improving capacity to transfer forces to the Far East from other parts of Russia — and ability to operate its air, land and sea forces in a joint manner.

Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.