No Peace for the Wicked: Lessons to Be Taken from Russia's Military Exercises in Vostok 2018
Recent years have seen Russia, with Vladimir Putin at its helm, regularly embroiled in questions of dubious interference with the world of high politics. After the nation annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, tensions between Russia and NATO, famously dominated by the United States, have been growing increasingly precarious. Since then, the world has seen allegations of Russia rigging the 2016 US Presidential election, and most recently, its involvement in the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a military grade Novichok nerve agent in March 2018.
Apparently impervious to accusations issued by NATO and the UN, Russia has continued in its arguably recalcitrant attitude towards the West in recent months. It was met with considerable concern when, earlier in 2018, Russia announced that it would be hosting Vostok 2018, a military drill held in eastern Siberia to practise the rapid deployment of thousands of troops, aircraft and military vehicles from western regions towards the East. The last Russian military exercise of a similar scale was held in 1981 during the Cold War, but Vostok 2018 incorporated more troops, thus affording it a status of unprecedented magnitude. Statistically speaking, the Vostok drills involved 36,000 tanks, armoured personnel carriers and infantry vehicles; 1,000 aircraft; 80 naval vessels from two Russian fleets and three brigades of Russian paratroopers, indicating numerical equivalence with forces deployed in some of the major battles of the Second World War.(1)
In the face of this rapid process of military modernisation, Putin has nevertheless insisted that Russia is a ‘peaceful nation’.(2) On the other hand, Frants Klintsevich, a Russian senator and reserve colonel stated during the exercises:
‘It suited the West that our units and headquarters lacked combat skills and coordination, but times have changed; now we have a different attitude to combat readiness.’(3)
The question therefore lies, if this statement accurately reflects Russian intentions, does it render Putin’s advocacy of a peaceful Russia untenable?
The main stage of the Vostok-2018 maneuvers at the Tsugol proving ground in the Trans-Baikal Territory
What makes matters increasingly interesting is the involvement of China in Vostok 2018. The People's Liberation Army sent contingents of both troops and armoured vehicles into the drills, which involved sharing a joint field headquarters with their Russian hosts. What has also attracted global attention is the somewhat surprising level of friendliness exhibited between Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. On a personal level, Xi recently referred to Putin as his ‘best, most intimate friend’, reflecting a huge transformation since the animosity in Sino-Russian relations during the late Cold War.(4)
Beyond personal considerations, however, the Chinese defence ministry has spoken of deepening military co-operation and enhancing both sides’ abilities to jointly respond to ‘various security threats’, without specifying exactly what these threats are.(5) It can probably be assumed that this statement refers to the USA as, coupled with Russia’s recent antagonism with the West, China has also been involved in a tit-for-tat trading controversy with Washington this year. As a result, Russia has become increasingly vital as a trading partner for China, with rising western concerns over their relationship becoming an inevitable corollary.
This is all well and good, but what bearing does it have on international affairs and the state of world politics? Undoubtedly, Russia has attempted to convey a powerful message to the West through Vostok 2018, affirming that in times of tension, Moscow is not militarily isolated and has the backing of heavyweight nation China to boot. British thinktank Chatham House is right to point out that the timing of Vostok 2018 now leaves the USA with insufficient time to conduct bigger and better military drills this year in response.(6) The added complication of Chinese involvement in the exercises also begs the question of whether Russia and China, considering their respective tensions with the USA, are drawing closer to each other to try to counter American world influence. It seems reasonable to suggest that this is at least the message the two nations are trying to give off, regardless of underlying Sino-Russian tensions. With the two leaders having established a good rapport on a personal level, the confidence coming from the East is certainly not a threat that the West can dismiss as fanciful. NATO spokesman Dylan White has commented, saying:
‘All nations have the right to exercise their armed forces, but it is essential that this is done in a transparent and predictable manner…Vostok demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large scale conflict. It fits into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence.’(7)
At the end of the military maneuvers of "Vostok-2018", a field review of the troops took place.
However, a deeper analysis suggests that in reality, whilst Russia is indeed showcasing its modernised military and nuclear missiles, a fully-fledged military alliance with China must be viewed with scepticism. Certainly, Vostok 2018 was beneficial to both parties in that they could learn from each other militarily, particularly with reference to the lessons learnt by Russia on the Syrian and Ukrainian battlefields. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that a formal alliance will be created at this early stage. It seems, without wanting to draw too direct a comparison with the Cold War, to be something of a “marriage of convenience” whilst the USA continues to cause problems for both nations respectively. As is natural in international politics, an element of distrust must surely remain between Russia and China; Moscow is undoubtedly wary of the economic superpower in its backyard, and China resentful of continued Russian arms deals with its regional rivals India and Vietnam. Taking this speculation further, one might even assert that the Vostok exercises were seized by both as an opportunity to demonstrate to each other a military ability to defend their own sovereignties.(8)
Trusting that at this stage Vostok 2018 marked only a showcase and test of such capabilities by Russia and China, the West must certainly keep a close eye on developments in the two nations and their relationship if it wishes to retain military preparedness in this world of mutually assured destruction.
(1) 'Russia launches biggest war games since Cold War', BBC, 11 September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-45470460
(2) D. Magnay, 'Russia's war games 'horrifying and awe-inspiring'', Sky News, 14 September 2018 https://news.sky.com/story/russias-war-games-horrifying-and-awe-inspiring-1149654
(3) 'Russia launches biggest war games since Cold War'
(4) 'Russia launches biggest war games since Cold War'
(5) 'Russia launches biggest war games since Cold War'
(6) M. Boulègue, 'Russia's Vostok Exercises Were Both Serious Planning and Show', Chatham House, 17 September 2018 https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/russia-s-vostok-exercises-were-both-serious-planning-and-show
(7) 'Russia launches biggest war games since Cold War'
(8) Z. Yang, 'Vostok 2018: Russia and China's Diverging Common Interests', The Diplomat, 17 September 2018 https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/vostok-2018-russia-and-chinas-diverging-common-interests/
At the time of writing, Issy Williams is an incoming final year History student at the University of Bristol. She is most interested in contemporary power politics in Russia, the United States and the Korean Peninsula.