What Russia’s Vostok-2018 exercises mean for China and the West

What Russia’s Vostok-2018 exercises mean for China and the West
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Russia’s massive Vostok-2018 drills were two things at once. They were a military drill where troops tested their combat preparedness. But they also were a diplomatic exercise highlighting relations with China and aimed at the West.

From September 11-17, the Russian armed forces conducted the active phase of the Vostok-2018 strategic military exercise in Russia’s far east. The breadth of the exercise was impressive: it uniquely involved several major military districts, as troops from the Central Military District and the Northern Fleet confronted the Eastern Military District and the Pacific Fleet. 

In a twist, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army participated for the first time. The exercise therefore offers serious lessons as to Russia’s diplomatic footing towards both China and the West.

The military dimension

The Vostok 2018 exercise was part of a pre-planned life-cycle of massive drills occurring across all of Russia’s military commands that aim to strengthen command and control (C2), improve troop preparedness, strategic mobility, military logistics and joint operations between army branches across multiple theaters of operations.

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The 2018 drills emphasized troop displacement over long distances: as many as 297,000 troops were reportedly deployed throughout the week across nine distinct training ranges located in Russia’s far east. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, this represented the biggest military exercise since Zapad-1981, when Warsaw Pact forces rehearsed the invasion of Poland.

But it is likely that the number of troops has been largely inflated, as part of the Kremlin’s sabre-rattling rhetoric. This emphasis on numbers, rather than on capabilities and intentions, further feeds the Western fixation on the size of Russian forces as well as Moscow’s ‘great power’ narrative at home.

Lessons learned from the Syrian battlefield (and in Ukraine) prominently featured throughout the duration of the drills, which involved Russia’s most advanced military hardware.

The China angle

Vostok-2018 offered new strategic insights on the extent of the relationship between Russia and China. For the first time, the Vostok drills hosted People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops at the Tsugol military range in the Zabaykalsky Krai. China deployed some 3,200 troops and numerous pieces of equipment. Both armies conducted joint firing operations and further tested their interoperability.

Inviting the PLA represents a well-organized PR coup for the Kremlin. Previous iterations of Vostok rehearsed the defence of Russia’s far east against a ‘foreign invasion’ or various ‘terrorist groups’ at its eastern borders. Without overtly naming China a threat, Vostok usually sought to protect Russia from a militarily-assertive PLA.

This year, the scenario was adapted to turn military drills which in the past had the flavour of an anti-Chinese agenda into a strategic exercise with China. Including the PLA helped to downplay that element further and emphasize that the drills are not directed against Beijing.

China’s presence allowed the Russian armed forces to judge in situ the level of preparedness and adaptation to modern warfare of a country that has not had combat experience in decades, and draw conclusions. The same can be said for Beijing, as there are many sectors where both armies can learn from each other and explore further military and technical cooperation. Vostok also showed off Russia’s ‘combat-proven’ military hardware, which could help it secure additional defence contracts with Beijing.

Signalling the West

According to Russian media, Vostok-2018 enshrined the creation an ‘anti-American military alliance’. To drive the point home, the beginning of the active phase of the exercise coincided with a meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at the margins of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

The creation of a military alliance between China and Russia, however, needs to be treated with skepticism. Moscow and Beijing certainly enjoy a ‘special’, albeit pragmatic, bilateral relationship, but such a formal alliance is unlikely to happen any time soon. Furthermore, Vostok-2018 was not simply a bilateral exercise – although a symbolic token, the drills involved troops from Mongolia, and Turkey was also invited to participate but politely refused, sending observers instead.

The signal intended for the US and the West is quite clear: in times of tension between Russia and the West, Moscow is not militarily isolated and can count on China as an ally. Meanwhile, NATO and the US cannot do military drills bigger and better than this year’s Vostok.

This does not mean that Russia is preparing for war against the West. It is more an element of show, chest thumping for both foreign and domestic audiences. But despite this, and the limits on the evolving Russia–China relationship, Vostok-2018 has left plenty for the West to keep an eye on.

It might therefore be time for a new Western reality check around the evolving nature of the Russia-China relationship.

Mathieu Boulègue is a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London. He graduated from Sciences Po Toulouse in France and from King’s College London.