Russia will hold the biggest war games in its history (since 1991), September 11-15. Dubbed Vostok-18, or East-18, the massive training event will be conducted on the firing ranges of Russia’s central and eastern military districts, spanning the distance from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Coast. It will involve almost 300,000 troops, 36,000 pieces of military equipment, more than 1,000 military aircraft, two of Russia’s naval fleets, and all its airborne units. Almost a third of all Russian military personnel will take part in Vostok-18. The exercise will include combat operations under a simulated nuclear attack. Even the Soviet Union’s massive Zapad-81 (West-81) series of military drills were conducted on a smaller scale.
Vostok-18 will be held east of the Ural Mountains. Moscow is not obliged to notify the West or to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Nevertheless, military attaches from Western nations will be welcomed to monitor the drills.
China and Mongolia have been invited to take part. The extent of Mongolia’s participation has not yet been made public. The Chinese contribution is very significant, consisting of 3,200 troops and more than 900 pieces of military hardware, as well as 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The PLA forces have already arrived in the region east of Lake Baikal. They will be training at the Tsugol training range in Russia’s Trans-Baikal region from September 11 to 15. There will be a joint staff established to coordinate the activities. This is the first time China has ever taken part in an internal, rather than a combined exercise.
On August 27, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov met the Head of the Joint Staff Department of the Chinese Central Military Commission Li Zuocheng in Moscow. During the negotiations, the military officials discussed expanding bilateral military cooperation. There is no Moscow-Beijing military alliance, but their joint participation in Russia’s largest-ever exercise makes it clear that the two countries are unofficially allied.
Chinese defense expert Zhou Chenming claims the country’s military is “keen for more exchanges with Russia’s experienced armed forces.” According to him, “China also wants to show its support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is facing various diplomatic challenges, especially criticism from the US Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo] over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.”
Nothing has been announced officially so far, but it’s logical to assume that Russia’s Supreme Commander-in-Chief will come and see the training event with his own eyes. Although it is not part of the official program, the Chinese leader could join the Russian president.
Russian-Chinese military exercises have become routine, but they have never participated in a training event on such a scale. Last year, Russian and China held a series of joint military training events. Naval exercises were conducted in the Baltic Sea and the South China Sea.
It’s rather symbolic that the drills will coincide with the Eastern Economic Forum, held Sept. 11-13 in Vladivostok, where Russian President Putin will meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. They have a lot of issues to discuss, as the two nations are in the same boat — both resisting the US policy of outright pressure and wars of sanctions. This year Washington made a show of revoking China’s invitation to take part in the international RIMPAC naval exercise staged by the US. The US Navy has stepped up patrols near the waters adjacent to islands claimed by China, thus stirring up tensions in the region. It is planning to conduct “a steady drumbeat” of naval operations there. GOP lawmakers strongly support the idea of selling F-35 fighters to Taiwan, which is an open challenge to Beijing.
Russia and China are two great nations united by the common task of challenging the US-dominated international world order. The emerging Russian-Chinese alliance is part of Moscow’s Asia pivot. In November, Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the 18-member East Asia Summit (EAS) as a well as a Russia-ASEAN summit that will be held on the side. It’s the first time Russia will be represented by its head of state there. The East Asia Summits are the right venue for addressing East Asia’s security challenges.
The Russian president will promote his Greater Eurasia project, known as the Greater Eurasian Partnership, which is aimed at creating a common space in the region and encompasses the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the countries involved in the integration of the China’s One Belt One Road initiative. China is not the only country with which Russia enjoys close ties. Its relationship with ASEAN is also making strides.
South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are also expected to attend the Economic Forum in Vladivostok. According to some estimates, approximately 7,000 people will take part in the event.
Russia’s engagement with China and other Asian states on various issues has grown in recent years. Russia is not an Asia-oriented power, but rather a world power with global interests that need be protected everywhere. The East-2018 exercise and the Russia-hosted East Economic Forum-2018 are elements of Russia’s Asia-Pacific strategy.