The Long Game? Russia Prepares for Siberian Military Exercises

Su-27 Russian fighter jet [Photo by Pixabay]
On 11-15 September, the Russian military will be engaging in military exercises on a scale not seen since the ‘Zapad-81’ (Запад-81) war games conducted by the then-Soviet Army and the Warsaw Pact in 1981. The manoeuvres will take place in Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE), with China and Mongolia also providing troops and support. The ‘Vostok 2018’ (Восток 2018) exercises will include approximately 300,000 Russian personnel, (roughly a third of the entire Russian military), operating within the Central and Eastern Military Districts of the country as well as the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk regions of the Russian Arctic. Both the Central and Eastern Districts include large swaths of the Russian Arctic, with the Eastern District incorporating much of the RFE and the Russian Pacific Fleet.

At a time when relations between Moscow and the United States, as well as the rest of NATO, remain strained, the exercises will likely serve to advertise to the international community the renewed capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces (Вооружённые Си́лы Росси́йской Федера́ции). The event will also demonstrate growing military cooperation between Russia and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as approximately 3200 Chinese forces, reportedly selected from the PLA’s Northern Theatre Command (Beibu Zhanqu 北部战区), are expected to participate in the operation, along with an unspecified number of personnel from the Mongolian Armed Forces (Монгол улсын зэвсэгт хүчин).

This week, Chinese and Mongolian participants received preliminary information about the various components of the upcoming mock operation at the military grounds in Tsugol, located in the Russian Transbaikal region near the Mongolian border. Although Chinese participation in the exercises will be limited, it will nonetheless provide an opportunity for PLA forces to learn about current Russian military tactics, (including recent Russian operations in the Syrian civil war), as well as to demonstrate growing strategic trust between Beijing and Russia.

Post-2016 military districts of Russia, including the Central Military District (in green) and the Eastern Military District (in gold). [Map via Wikipedia]
According to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Vostok 2018 operations will involve thirty-six thousand pieces of equipment, including armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as aircraft and drones. Naval vessels, including from the Arctic Ocean-based Russian Northern Fleet (Северный флот), are also expected to take part. Moscow has sought to frame the exercises as a defensive endeavour, prompted by ongoing Western military activities, including in Northern Europe, near Russia’s borders.

Case in point, the next major NATO military exercise, codenamed ‘Trident Juncture 18’, will be taking place primarily in Norway in October-November of this year. Non-NATO members Finland and Sweden will also be contributing, reflecting ongoing concerns in the Nordic region about Russian military activities in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Although Russian officials stressed the operations were not meant to target any specific country, and instead would focus on the general readiness of Russian forces to function in a combat situation, the size and scope of the operations have been interpreted as a ‘costly signal’ [pdf] , (especially considering the price tag and logistics of these exercises), to the West that the Russian military remains formidable.

People’s Liberation Army posters, Beijing [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Sino-Russian relations in the RFE have undergone many iterations since China and the USSR fought a brief border war in 1969. When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the Chinese and Russian governments were anxious to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict by agreeing on border demarcations which would be suitable to both sides, especially since the two countries were anxious to pull back the thousands of troops stationed on the frontier. The Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin was also facing considerable economic crises throughout the 1990s which also strained military resources, while Beijing was seeking to turn its attention to looming security challenges elsewhere, including maritime security and a cooling diplomatic relationship with the United States. The complex process of defining the almost 4300 kilometre-long border was finally completed via an agreement in July 2008, while military relations between China and Russia improved via bilateral cooperation as well as through multilateral organisations in Eurasia such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The last Vostok military exercises in 2014 not only excluded China, but were viewed by some outside observers as representing a hedge against growing Chinese military power. However, after the Crimea/Donbas crises in Ukraine after 2014 and the subsequent sanctions placed on Russia by the West in response, Sino-Russian relations have improved both in economic and increasingly strategic areas, even though the possibility of a formal bilateral alliance remains negligible. These closer relations have been reflected in both the Russian Arctic and the RFE. China sees Russia, understandably, as holding many of the keys to Beijing’s Arctic interests, including access to resources as well as enhancing Chinese shipping between Asia and Europe. Although it can readily be argued that China and Russia are currently on two different economic trajectories, the government of Xi Jinping has sought [paywall] to improve trade ties with Russia and highlight mutual geo-strategic interests, including mutual concerns about American power.

Russian military honour guard [Photo by Pixabay]
There is much talk in both countries of an emerging ‘Ice Silk Road’ which could greatly improve economic conditions in the Russian Arctic through energy and infrastructure cooperation. China is also a major financial supporter, including via Beijing’s Silk Road Fund, of the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia, with China receiving its first LNG shipment from the project in July this year.

As well, after initially being reluctant to invest in the Russian Far East due to the perceived high start-up costs involved, Beijing has changed its position over the past five years, with many high-ranking Chinese governmental officials praising the great economic opportunities emerging in the RFE, including in the energy and commodities sectors. For example, then Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao suggested at an economic conference in St. Petersburg in May 2014 that conditions were ideal for the creation of a joint development zone between China and eastern Russia. Chinese interest in diversifying partnerships in the fossil fuel and commodities sectors, including expanded Russia trade, may only increase in light of the worsening trade war with the United States.

Both the Vostok and the NATO war games in the coming weeks further add to the question of whether great power politics and geo-strategic rivalries are starting to ‘climb the wall’ and become more visible in the Arctic. Although environmental concerns continue to dominate Arctic politics, these issues may have to give way to more traditional military concerns, especially as East-West differences continue to become more pronounced.