Russia is getting ready for war games with 300,000 troops — but the size isn’t the only ‘unprecedented’ thing about it

Russian President Vladimir Putin inspecting warships on the Neva River during the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg on July 29.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin inspecting warships on the Neva River during the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg on July 29.
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Sputnik/Mikhail Klementyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

  • The latest iteration of Russia’s Vostok military exercise, set for mid-September, has attracted attention for its massive scale.
  • But just as striking a feature may be the inclusion of China.
  • Russia has long seen China as a rival, but tensions with the West appear to have triggered a shift by Moscow.

Russia’s armed forces are gearing up for Vostok-18, or East-18, a massive military exercise in the country’s far east from September 11 to September 15.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said this week that about 300,000 troops and 1,000 aircraft would participate, using all of the training ranges in the country’s central and eastern military districts. Russia’s Pacific and Northern fleets and its airborne forces are also expected to join.

Shoigu said this year’s iteration of the Vostok exercise would be “unprecedented in scale, both in terms of area of operations and numbers of military command structure, troops, and forces involved.”

Russian troops after a training exercise in the village of Nikinci, west of Belgrade, Serbia, in 2014.

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Russian troops after a training exercise in the village of Nikinci, west of Belgrade, Serbia, in 2014.
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Marko Djurica/Reuters

But the size of the forces involved is not the only feature that has turned heads.

Forces from China and Mongolia also plan to take part. Beijing has said it will send about 3,200 troops, 30 helicopters, and more than 900 other pieces of military hardware.

China’s Defense Ministry said the drills were meant to strengthen the two countries’ strategic military partnership and increase their ability to respond to threats and ensure stability in the region.

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said China’s participation “speaks about the expansion of interaction of the two allies in all the spheres.”

Chinese forces have already joined their Russian counterparts in some military exercises.

Armed Chinese police officers and Russian national guard troops at a counterterrorism drill in northern China on December 5.

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Armed Chinese police officers and Russian national guard troops at a counterterrorism drill in northern China on December 5.
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REUTERS/Stringer

Chinese warships have drilled with their Russian counterparts in the Pacific Ocean and the Baltic Sea. This summer, Chinese warplanes were in Russia for International Army Games 2018, a multinational event.

This month, Chinese forces are taking part in Peace Mission 2018, an exercise organized by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional bloc led by Russia and China. (It’s the first exercise to include all eight SCO members.)

But including China in the Vostok exercise hints at a significant geopolitical shift.

“China was seen as the potential threat or target in exercises like Vostok,” Alexander Gabuev, an expert on China at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The New York Times.

“But it is now being invited to join as a friend and even a quasi-ally,” Gabuev added. “This is really unprecedented.”

The Soviet Union clashed with China along their shared border several times in the 1960s – once in a deadly Chinese raid on a Soviet border outpost that almost kicked off a full-scale war in early 1969.

Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Brics Summit in China on September 4.

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Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Brics Summit in China on September 4.
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REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool

The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev normalized relations with China in 1989, and some 6 million Russians in Siberia now live alongside roughly 100 million Chinese in northern China, where trade relations have grown.

But eastern Russia’s vast expanse and sparse population make it a vulnerable area, and Russians there have expressed frustration with the growing Chinese presence and with concessions to Chinese commercial interests.

Amid heightened tensions with the West, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a concerted effort to build ties with China. Beijing, for its part, has also embraced Russia. Both have done so with an eye on the West.

The two have said they are building a “strategic partnership” and expressed shared opposition to what they describe as a “unipolar” world dominated by the US.

Putin and Xi at a concert in Xiamen, China, on September 3.

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Putin and Xi at a concert in Xiamen, China, on September 3.
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Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

China’s defense minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe, went to Moscow earlier this year on his first trip abroad, saying the visit was meant to “let the Americans know about the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.”

“I am visiting Russia as a new defense minister of China to show the world a high level of development of our bilateral relations and firm determination of our armed forces to strengthen strategic cooperation,” Wei said.

That rhetoric and statements about close ties don’t mean that Russia has dropped its guard, Gabuev said, noting that Chinese troops at Vostok-18 may be limited to training areas near the countries’ shared border with Mongolia, allowing Russian forces deployed elsewhere to carry out exercises designed with China in mind.

The Russian military “is not so naive that it is not preparing a contingency plan,” Gabuev told The Times.