Russian Claims of ‘Biggest-Ever’ War Exercises Seen as Sending a Message


12 September, 2018

Russia is holding its biggest military exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The military exercise is being called "Vostok-2018" and includes forces from China and Mongolia. The war games continue in Russia's Far East and eastern Siberia through September 17.

Russia and China have held joint exercises before, but nothing of this size.

Before these exercises began, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said they would be even larger than war games held in 1981. Those games involved between 100,000 and 150,000 soldiers from the Soviet Union and its allies.

Vostok-2018 reportedly will involve 300,000 soldiers, 36,000 military vehicles, 1,000 airplanes and 80 warships.

Russia's Vostok 2018 military drills
Russia's Vostok 2018 military drills

Chinese involvement in the exercises

China has sent only 3,200 soldiers and 900 weapons units, but its decision to take part is unprecedented. Some observers believe it is a warning to the United States and Europe.

Alexander Gabuev is with the Carnegie Moscow Center. He said, "It sends a signal to Washington that if the U.S. continues on its current course by pressuring Russia... (it) will fall even more into the firm embrace of China." Gabuev told the Associated Press that China's presence at the exercises means the two countries no longer see each other as military threats.

But other observers disagree. They question both the transparency of Vostok-2018 troop estimates and the political importance of China's presence.

Troop numbers for exercises like these are usually what we might call "true lies," said Michael Kofman, a Russia and Eurasia security and defense expert at the Kennan Institute.

"(This) means that if a brigade sends one battalion, then they count the whole brigade," he told VOA.

Kofman added that Russian officials usually announce different numbers after the military exercises have ended. In Vostok 2014, officials said they had 100,000 soldiers, but later changed that number to 155,000.

Different ways of counting troop numbers make it hard to know how many soldiers are actually a part of the exercises.

The West is watching

The United States and other NATO member countries say they are watching the situation.

The purpose of the nearly week-long war games is clear. Top NATO officials have called Vostok-2018 an "exercise in large-scale conflict."

The exercise "is really to test Russia's ability to fight in a large worldwide conflict, and one that may involve nuclear weapons," Kofman told VOA. He said it also is an attempt to test the Russian military's skill at moving quickly and seeing how civilian-military officials would react to a large-scale war.

While much of the West worries about the risk of conflict across Eastern Europe, the Russians appear to be most worried about China and the Far East.

Kofman notes the Far East is different from other parts of Russia because it is so far from infrastructure and large population centers. He added that Russia's military there is almost designed to fight on its own, almost (like a) separate military, which is why is has so many ground-force formations."

Although Russia and China have increased military-to-military contact in recent years, no one really thinks the two sides have formed a formal military alliance.

"Russia has no chance of a formal military alliance with China, and not because Russia doesn't want it," said Aleksander Goltz, a Moscow-based military expert.

China has refused any military alliances or guarantees, he said, adding that the alliance for Vostok-2018 is limited and China set those limits.

Jeffrey Edmonds is a former Russia director for the U.S. National Security Council. He described Vostok-2018 as part of Russia's continuing efforts to modernize its forces.

The actual "exercise itself is ... standard Russian military activity," Edmonds said, He said that the high numbers of troops may be an attempt to go against the belief in a threat from the West.

I'm Susan Shand.

Danila Galperovich and Victor Beattie reported this story for VOANews. Susan Shand adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words In This Story

unit – n. a thing, person or group that is part of something larger

unprecedented - adj. never been done before

course – n. pathway, direction

embrace – n. putting one's arms around another person

transparency – n. openness

brigade – n. part of a military division

battalion – n. a very large part of the army

infrastructure – n. the equipment and structures needed necessary for something to operate correctly

scale – n. a series of ordering or rating something