How Far Vostok 2018 Drills - Designed to Project Russia’s Military Power - Reverberate In The Media

Fuad Muxtarlı Media Roundup 20 September 2018
How Far Vostok 2018 Drills - Designed to Project Russia’s Military Power - Reverberate In The Media

Russia Vostok 2018 major operational-strategic military exercise, which ran from September 11 to 17, has gotton considerable international attention due both to its reported size, cast as the largest since Zapad 1981, and the inclusion of forces from China.

Russia’s defense ministry consciously presented Vostok 2018 as both a show of its advances in recent years, while also vastly inflating the size of the exercise. In addition to the scale, however, the most interesting feature may have been the presence of troops and assets from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), thus making it bilateral drills.

The level of attention and publicity generated by the defense leadership in Moscow concerning the historic size of the exercise seems to imply a deliberate effort to exaggerate its scale to offer a show of military power. This contrasts with the pattern of officially under-reporting the numbers of military personnel participating in the Zapad series of military exercises due to the need to try to show compliance with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document (2011). Officially, Russia sent 300,000 military personnel to Vostok 2018, with 3,200 from the PLA. Yet, reports on the number of Russian troops returning to their home bases after the exercise suggest that Vostok 2018 was actually significantly smaller.

Vostok 2018 involved five combined-arms and four air-defense training ranges as well as naval maneuvers. While these were among some of the main military testing and training goals of the exercise, it is also the case that Vostok 2018 was calculated to send a “strategic message” to foreign powers. The Russian minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu, downplayed the idea that Vostok 2018 modeled an attack on any other country. Yet, the force elements and parts of the scenario imply operations against a foreign state actor. Moreover, Moscow always casts its military exercises as “defensive,” even while actively training for counter-offensive operations.

Another notable area of the exercise was the involvement of PLA forces. China sent 3,200 military personnel to the exercise. This could be interpreted as a low-key level of commitment to Vostok. Yet, the joint forces in Tsugol training ground, in the Eastern Military District, which included 25,000 Russian personnel, were rehearsing combined-arms operations against a hypothetical opponent. Reportedly, the joint interaction between military forces from Russia, China and Mongolia were tasked with stopping the offensive of a conventional enemy.

At the same time, it is worth pointing out some conflicting signals regarding the participation of the PLA in this year’s Vostok war game. On the one hand, Shoigu stated that he wants these types of joint exercises to be more frequent. But on the other hand, he also said that an exercise on the scale of Vostok 2018 might only occur every five years.

An element of show is always involved in military exercises. The hype and exaggeration of the recently concluded massive drills in the east - not least concerning the numbers of personnel - indicate that Moscow took seriously the task of showcasing its military power. Yet, rather than intended to intimidate its neighbors, Vostok 2018 was framed in part to test military advances, promote arms sales, and to impress the PLA.

China’s involvement in a Russian strategic-level military exercise may have influenced the defense ministry’s media campaign to compare it with Zapad 1981. The inclusion of Chinese troops in Russian military exercises on this level will not go unnoticed. Though foreign governments will likely wait to see how Moscow and Beijing follow up their joint participation in Vostok 2018.

Zhou Bo of South China Morning Star newspaper says in “Why China-Russia military exercises should provoke soul-searching in the West” that the massive Vostok 2018 joint exercises were not just mutually beneficial to both countries in military terms but also signify a political rapprochement.

The Chinese paper outlined that “what made it more exceptional is that it was attended by 3,200 troops with 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and a great deal of armoury and artillery from China. Never before has the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) been involved so massively in a joint exercise overseas.”

Such exercises are significant to the PLA primarily for two reasons. First, only large-scale exercises can truly reveal the capacity of a military in terms of strategic planning, power projection, command, control and communication. Therefore, the more sophisticated the exercises, the better, the paper said.

Since the PLA has not been involved in wars since 1980, its capacity building and operational readiness can only be verified through military drills. Russia was once a superpower. Its military doctrine and lessons learned from wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria could be useful to the PLA

Second, these exercises are meant to address large conflicts rather than non-traditional threats such as terrorism, piracy and natural disasters. The PLA’s military exercises with foreign armed forces are nothing new – China and Kyrgyzstan started a joint drill in 2002 – but most are still focused on preparing for non-traditional threats, the same report says.

The report also advises the Chinese leadership to go ahead conducting similar drills. “Today, China is still not fully reunified, as some Chinese territories remain occupied by other countries. If large-scale conflicts or wars cannot be ruled out in the future, then such sophisticated exercises with Russia involving different services and arms are certainly good practice for the PLA.

Being one of the leaders in artificial intelligence technology, China has vowed to build an “intelligent military” and the road map of the PLA, as laid out in the report of the 19th party congress, is clear – to become mechanised by 2020, modernised by 2035 and world-class by 2050.

China and Russia did not just reap military rewards from Vostok 2018. If Carl von Clausewitz is right in saying that “war is but the continuation of politics by different means”, then a joint military exercise looks like a natural extension of the political rapprochement of the countries involved.

The fact that Russia invited China – and Mongolia – to attend its largest exercise clearly indicates that Moscow views Beijing positively as a political partner in the international arena and vice versa, the author opined.

These views are best reflected in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which has Chinese and Russian as the official languages. The alliance stresses the “Shanghai spirit” of mutual trust, mutual benefits and consultation.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation took the courageous step of including both India and Pakistan, which are often at loggerheads. Unlike Nato, it looks inward to address internal threats such as terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism, rather than looking outward for enemies.

Around the world, Western triumphalism over its “liberal international order” is receding. Beijing maintains, and Moscow concurs, that their joint military exercises are not directed against third parties, and that China and Russia are partners rather than allies.

Does this come as a relief to the West, whose worst nightmare is a China-Russia alliance? If Vostok 2018 worries the West, it should also provide a moment for soul-searching as to why China and Russia are getting ever closer.

China and Russia are sending a message to the U.S. – and to each other – with their display of military might. One of Russia’s major military maneuvers held every four years, this year’s Vostok is of special significance because Russia has not held an exercise of this scale since 1981. It is quite obvious that Moscow is sending a message to Russia’s opponents and friends alike that the Russian military stands ready in defense of its Far East territories. 

Vostok 2018 takes place during a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. However, Russia’s Zapad 2017 exercise in its western defense sector only involved a total of 12,700 Russian and Belarusian troops, an insignificant number when compared to Vostok 2018. So why is Russia placing greater emphasis on its eastern flanks?

While Moscow’s topmost security concern has always been in its European end, the Far East is of concern because the possibility of a two front war. Historically, Russia has engaged in a series of wars and conflicts in the Far East against rising Asian powers, often with lasting consequences for Russia’s developmental trajectory, the Diplomat says. Overall, we can see that although Moscow prioritizes the defense of its western sector, the Far East is equally important. Even in a time of growing tensions with NATO, Russia must make sure its eastern defense is in tiptop shape.

China’s Stake

Besides Russia’s 297,000 personnel participating in Vostok, China also sent a contingent of 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and equipment, and 30 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit did not participate in all scenarios but took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations at Zabaykalsky Krai’s Tsugol Training Range, a 768-square kilometer area of plains, hills, grasslands, swamps, and rivers. Nonetheless, the current maneuver differs from past joint Chinese-Russian drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in one critical aspect. While SCO exercises focused on nontraditional security threats, the Vostok maneuver simulates a wartime campaign.

There are four key motivations behind China’s participation in Vostok 2018. First and foremost, China hopes to show rivals that China and Russia are standing together. Declining Sino-U.S. relations in the age of Trump are making China more defensive vis-à-vis Washington, something that aligns with Moscow’s position. Moreover, China feels locked in due to tensions with a number of regional rivals, such as India and Vietnam. The Vostok exercise is to demonstrate that China is well capable of fighting a ground war and send a clear message to rivals and rogue states in the region that China can operate on unfamiliar territories without difficulties.

Second, China also hopes to demonstrate to Russia the results of China’s military reform. In addition to rivals and rogue states, China is seeking to flex its newly gained military muscles to other Vostok participants, Russia and Mongolia. China wants to show Russia that the PLA is ready for and capable of modern warfare and can stand its ground alone while also serving as a reliable ally. Mongolia, while participating in Vostok with one mechanized infantry battalion, is simultaneously hosting the annual Nomadic Elephant drills with India in the Five Hills Training Area near Ulaanbaatar. It is in China’s interest to cast the PLA as the superior force in this instance.

Relatedly, China’s third interest is to test the results of its military restructuring in order to make the appropriate adjustments to the ongoing reform. The PLA is currently undergoing its most ambitious and comprehensive transformation, initiative in January 2016. With that being said, the PLA has not yet examined the achievements in context of large-scale joint operations with one of the world’s leading armies. Thus Vostok will serve as an important touchstone in assessing the reform’s progress.

Last but not least, one of the most important reasons why China decided to join Vostok is to learn from Russian counterparts returning from the eastern Ukraine and Syria campaigns, the former a military intervention to support insurgents and the latter an intervention with significant counterinsurgency components. The PLA has not supported an insurgency since the 1980s, when it assisted Cambodian resistance groups against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Furthermore, the PLA has not fought a counterinsurgency campaign since the early 1950s when it hunted down Kuomintang remnants and anti-communist insurgents spread across mainland China. Therefore, the PLA desperately needs the valuable lessons that Russian commanders have to offer.

The United States’ readjustment of its global strategy is pushing China and Russia closer together. Yes, there are chasms and distrust between a militarily powerful yet economically weak Russia and an economically sound China with an increasingly able military. While Russia is cautious of growing Chinese influence in its “backyard” - i.e. Central Asia and the Middle East - Beijing is dissatisfied with continued Russian arms sales to China’s rivals such as India and Vietnam. (As a matter of fact, a weapons deal between Russia and Vietnam totaling $1 billion was inked days before Vostok 2018’s commencement.) Yet political necessity and common interests are bringing the two capitals and their respective militaries closer to present a united posture towards the United States, while each has an interest in showing the other its full capability in defending their own sovereignty, the report says.

In sum, certain analysts and media outlets’ exaggeration of Vostok 2018 as the start of a new Sino-Russian military alliance suits the interest of Beijing and Moscow perfectly in projecting a strong and unified image despite the existence of mutual suspicion.

Russia portrays these maneuvers in a defensive rather than offensive character. The memo also states that the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation has invited “in good will” the NATO Mission in Russia, officials of the European Union in Russia, and military attachés of all countries to the Tsugol phase of Russia’s military exercises.

Tsugol is one of six combined-arms training grounds used for this year’s Vostok exercise. It is also the only segment in which Chinese troops joined Russian troops for side by side operations, and the only segment to which NATO, EU, and other foreign officials were invited. The invitation appears to be a deliberate choice by Moscow and Beijing to showcase their partnership. Further adding to the spectacle, Mongolian troops also participated in Vostok 2018, and President Vladimir Putin took the time to visit the joint military exercises, the American Security Project says.

As Russia launches the biggest war games ever with China, the Pentagon will be watching "very closely." “Russia launches a week of massive military exercises in the far east of the country this week and the Pentagon will be watching the `war games’ very closely, experts told CNBC.

Russia is showing a diplomatic pivot to the east with China this year, with several thousands of its troops, participating in some of the military exercises taking place in the Siberian and the Far Eastern regions of Russia. Mongolia is also sending troops to be involved in the drills.

The Pentagon will be watching Russia and China's expanding military capabilities, as well the upcoming "war games," very closely, according to a former U.S. national security official.

"I'm not sure that the Pentagon is terribly surprised by this (military exercise)," Lincoln Bloomfield, Distinguished Fellow and Chairman Emeritus at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research center, told CNBC on Tuesday.

"The Russians have been investing in some fairly sophisticated and troublesome systems, they're looking at the growing access to the Arctic and developing submarines, and I think the Pentagon is watching Russia very closely," he told CNBC's "Capital Connection".

"Because (Russia has) an experienced military that understands expeditionary operations whereas China is a little bit new to that and the culture of China has not demonstrated itself to be overtly aggressive in a military way against important powers like the U.S. So, I think the Pentagon is watching very closely but they're looking at it (Russia and China's military cooperation) as a long, incremental process," Bloomfield, who served as a national security official in three previous administrations, noted.

RUSSIA is demonstrating its military might with the biggest exercise in nearly four decades in the nation’s history at urban locality Vostok in September, which will include nearly half a million troops and the entire Russian airborne fleet, a British Express newspaper said.