Why does Russia place such emphasis and media attention on incredibly large military exercises with China?
Russia and China’s Growing Military Interaction; Surprised?
The drums are already rolling for the upcoming Russian “Vostok” (east) wargames commencing on September 11. With its focal point in the Trans-Baikal region of eastern Siberia adjoining Chinese Manchuria and Mongolia, this is a nationwide Russian military and societal event.
Touted by Russian minister of defense Sergei Shoigu as “unprecedented in scale, both in terms of area of operations and numbers of military command structure, troops, and forces involved,” Russian state press is declaring that up to three hundred thousand troops and one thousand aircraft will be involved, with the majority from the Eastern and Central Military Districts. This would be even larger than the near-legendary Zapad-81 maneuvers held in the western USSR during the depths of the Cold War.
Announcements about this type of event are not new to me. I’ve been to several of them. In July 2014, just before I departed Moscow as the U.S. defense attaché to Russia, news began to buzz concerning the upcoming Vostok 2014 wargames in the Far East. It was a tense time. Heralding new gray zone applications of so-called hybrid war, Ukraine’s Crimea had just been illegally annexed by Russia and battles raged between unattributed Russian regulars and beleaguered Ukrainian defenders across eastern Ukraine. At that time the upcoming Asian exercise was also billed as Russia’s largest military exercise since Soviet times, though its declared numbers turned out lower than proclaimed.
One important wrinkle this year is that reportedly up to 3,200 Chinese personal with ninety vehicles, including tanks and thirty fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, will participate. Most are coming from China’s Northern Command. This will be the first time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will take part in this formerly purely Russian quadrennial Asia-oriented exercise. The bulk of participating Chinese personal have already transited from Manchuria into Russia, escorted by Russian military police to the Tsugol training range near Chita. The Mongolians have also sent a small contingent.
“From such it’s quite evident that the trajectory of Chinese-Russian relations have certainly improved since I encountered in 1997 a former Soviet T-54 tank gunner in Spassk, an old garrison town north of Vladivostok located on the eastern shore of sizable Lake Khanka. Besotted with vodka drunk from coffee cups in a gritty railway bar, the gnarled veteran spoke of the fierce Ussuri River border clashes in 1969 near Khabarovsk where he claimed his tank destroyed several Chinese vehicles – three men in his company also died. Other citizens in a familiar refrain complained of a major cross-border influx of Chinese traders and settlers, illegal Chinese logging, illicit fishing in Lake Khanka’s fresh waters where both nations share a common aquatic border, and poaching of the region’s revered Siberian Tigers. Despite local concerns of this nature, this was a period of improving diplomatic relations between the two nations, with China on a slow upward trajectory after the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and Boris Yeltsin’s diminished Russia still struggling to regain its footing after the USSR’s break-up in 1991.”
It is important to note that Russia has no territorial claims in Asia. Rather, she is a status quo power in the Far East. With substantially fewer conventional forces along the Sino-Russian border than the Cold War, she is essentially in a strategic defensive posture. Her nuclear deterrent is her regional guarantor while a sophisticated anti-access, aerial denial network centered on the nuclear ballistic missile submarine bastion in and around the Sea of Okhotsk makes attacking the overall region a thorny proposition.
Russia’s burgeoning “strategic partner” Beijing, however, is distinctly revisionist in its behavior in Asia and the Pacific, much as Russia aggressively conducts its business in the West. A key generational question is how Russia manages the rising, resource-hungry hegemon that is looming China—one that has far-reaching aspirations throughout Asia, including its announced Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that runs in part though former Soviet Central Asian regions. China, the only “great power” with a seemingly long-term national vision, has also declared its interest in a Polar Silk Road as well.
The Russia-China military relationship continues to evolve and is a logical progression following deepening political and economic ties. Pragmaticallym the Amur-Ussuri territorial disputes were diplomatically resolved in 2004–5, enabling enhanced military cooperation though long-term generational issues remain. While Chinese-Russian military activities have in the past been mostly symbolic and representational, they appear increasingly interactive. The PLA, not blooded since its brusque 1979 defeat by Vietnam, likely hopes to learn from Russia’s newly gained fighting expertise derived since 2014 in eastern Ukraine and Syria. What is key to determine is if their interaction evolves more ominously into interoperability exercises where substantial and varied forces can operate in tandem and jointly in coordinated operations.
Dating back to 2005, Russia and China have exercised modest forces together in a mostly “counterterrorist” role in Central Asia and in Russia as part of the Chinese-driven Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Notably, SCO Exercise Peace Mission 2018, involving China, Russia and six other nations, including newly added India and Pakistan, is currently underway in Chelyabinsk (just east of the Ural Mountains). Bilaterally, they have participated in several small scale naval exercises in the Baltics (2017), South China Sea (2016) and eastern Mediterranean (2015), where they have been mostly “show the flag” operations designed more to convey sharp signals abroad and show partner support. Presaging Vostok-18, Russian air transport and elite airborne units conducted a snap readiness exercise in August in likely preparation of deployment east for the exercise. Additionally, a widely publicized Russian naval exercise in the Mediterranean to support Syria operations will be ongoing with twenty-five vessels of various sizes and likely will be included in the overall Vostok-18 personnel count.
It is important to understand that the Russians have a declared four-year cycle with long-planned exercises rotating annually between four Military Districts: Zapad (Western), Vostok (Eastern), Kavkaz (Southern) and Tsentr (Center). They are widely advertised, command major media attention domestically and abroad, and numerous international military attaches are invited as observers as I was to Kavkaz (Black Sea region) in 2012 and Zapad (Kaliningrad) in 2013. These are much different than the potentially more dangerous and destabilizing unannounced “snap” readiness exercise that have proliferated in recent years. The newly established Northern Fleet Military District focused on Russia’s “High North” also sorties assets during these exercises. The ramp-up for these major “Cecil B. DeMille” type extravaganzas are widely choreographed and involve much more than just conducting maneuvers and a big concluding firepower demonstration. They are in fact, major Russian national endeavors involving many thousands of civilians and support personnel, such as railway troops that figure into the exercise’s overall numbers. They include marshalling and moving forces and supplies over Russia’s vast railway, air and immature road networks, mobilizing reserves, organizing logistics including medical facilities, laying tactical fuel pipelines, sortieing ships and even exercising nuclear command and control as occurred in last year’s Zapad 2018. Quarterbacking the effort will be senior leaders and general staff operating within Moscow’s new National Military Command Center. Amidst heavy media coverage, President Vladimir Putin will also assuredly visit the exercise. In sum, these are society-wide efforts in which the full civil-military go-to-war apparatus of the Russian state is exercised. This does not mean Russia wants war, but is preparing for such in a way that is difficult for our more liberal-democratic societies to comprehend.
Why does Russia place such emphasis and media attention on these large set-piece exercises? Why this expensive, resource burning annual effort that unnerves Russia’s neighbors while both motivating and unsettling Russian citizenry?
One way to tackle this dichotomy is to go back to fundamentals regarding a Russia that lives through a prism of real, perceived . . . and contrived . . . existential threats. When wondering what drives the Russians to their seemingly counterintuitive and even self-defeating xenophobic behaviors, we must remember to review their geography, history and demography from which flow the nature of their regime and resultant social system and economy. Today’s resource-rich Russia, with its relatively small, western-weighted population, is set within a gigantic eleven-time zone Eurasian landmass that was mostly cut from the hide of nations and civilizations by former Czarist and Soviet rulers over the past five hundred years or so. As such, Russia has immensely long terrestrial borders . . . think of them as exposed flanks . . . with the melting Arctic widening into a northern flank as well. Its approximately 145 million citizens are about 40 percent of the population of the United States (320 million), one-third of the European Union (500 million) and about one-ninth of China (1.3 billion). China’s ground border with Russia alone runs over 2,300 miles, and while not an issue today, much of Moscow’s Far East was annexed from a weak Qing dynasty in the mid-1800s. This demographic imbalance between Russia and China is starkly apparent in the Russian Far East and Siberia, and as domestic Chinese natural resources inexorably diminish could be a major factor in the years ahead.
Again, to remind, Russia—in part due to its own imperial and Soviet expansion—has throughout its millennia of history been at war along its borders with massive loss of life. She barely survived several bouts of near annihilation including the Mongols from which some Russians organically still retain a visceral phobia of the East. Bookending this medieval horror, within the lifetime of today’s older grandparents, came the merciless Nazis from the West, from whom a staggering twenty million to twenty-six million Soviets perished. These factors clearly play in how the Russian people view external threats and how the regime leverages these perceptions to help mobilize the population. They should not, however, be used, or accepted as a pretext for aggressive revisionist actions.
Challenges regarding its smaller population and sanctions hobbled finances mean that Russia is hard-pressed to field in peace-time a one-million active duty military force. Additionally, over 30 percent of its personnel consist of difficult to manage one-year conscripts. This main force competes with robust security services and an approximately 250,000-strong National Guard. While a considerable force, Russia’s vastness, and widespread military commitments in places like Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Transnistria, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan rapidly diffuse it’s standing force, requiring major mobilization and training exercises such as this year’s Vostok-18 that will entail rapid shunting of forces across Russia’s colossal Eurasian landmass. This is a major reason Russia regularly drills as it does for potential war in a nationwide effort and why so much emphasis is put on territorial mobilization and defense.
All these factors reveal why it was absolute prudent, transactional foreign policy for China and Russia to resolve the border disputes that plagued their relations. While vulnerable to potential future problems including an increasing resource imbalance especially with oil and natural gas, both nations have bigger fish to fry, whether Russia’s issues to the west and south, and in China’s case, in the southeast Pacific, and with India to a lesser extent. Both needed calm borders and a more insulated trading relationship such as their massive $400 billion natural gas deal signed in 2014. Making increased military interaction more attractive is also the shared perception that the United States and its allies are squarely blocking their more autocratic aspirations and directly threatening their regimes. Neither have major allies or are part of a well-organized security alliance as is NATO. They are loath about being internationally isolated or contained, which explains why both, even while pursuing different agenda, are usually lockstep with each other on major security issues in the UN and other international fora.
Therefore, U.S. and allied policy regarding both Russia and China should continue to be strong and predictable focused on the specific issues that both challenge and benefit relations. Allies must be firmly defended and partners supported. Legal international boundaries and protocols must be respected and if need be enforced. What we should not do, however, is default toward treating both nuclear-tipped Russia and China as a conjoined threat thereby creating a future potential “self-fulfilling prophecy” where they could—especially if they perceive being isolated—temporally ally in some type of powerful, transactional pact. We should watch and learn from these military exercises, assure allies and partners, but not overreact to their actions and rhetoric nor appear to try to drive a wedge between them. The wedges are already there, those of the vast regions history, geography demography and resources which will inevitably play out in the generations ahead.
Brig. Gen. (retired) Peter Zwack writes from the Institute for National Security Studies within the National Defense University. He served as the United States Senior Defense Official and Attaché to Russia during contentious 2012-2014. Dating back to 1997, 2000 and 2012 he has traveled extensively throughout Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. These are his personal views and perspectives.