September 11 marked the beginning of the main phase of Russia’s annual strategic military exercise, this year held in its Eastern and Central Military Districts and designated Vostok 2018.
As in previous years, including last year’s western-facing Zapad 2017, the exercise has taken many months of logistic preparations and involved many smaller exercises for different branches and services of Russia’s armed forces, other militarised structures (internal troops, FSB controlled border guards, the National Guard which protects President Putin’s regime) and various civilian agencies.
Vostok 2018, however, differs from previous Russian strategic exercises in several political and military aspects, including: its alleged size; the secrecy surrounding its scenario; the participation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the invitation issued to Turkey; Russia’s internal political unease and the declining popularity of president Vladimir Putin; the concurrent meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok; the continuing volatility around the Korean Peninsula and the Kremlin’s ambition to play a key role there; and Russia’s (and China’s) desire to develop expeditionary military capabilities that are rapidly deployable to Africa, the Middle-East and other regions.
Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu announced on August 28 that during the 5 days of Vostok 2018 about 300,000 troops would be deployed from their permanent bases to almost every training ground in the Eastern and Central Military Districts. Meanwhile, the Northern Fleet (which commands the Northern/Arctic Military District) and the Pacific Fleet would deploy dozens of vessels to the Bering Sea and the Seas of Okhotsk and Japan. Not even Genghis Khan could dream of such a colossal army and navy on the move at the “sudden” order of the Czar and Commander-in-Chief: 36,000 pieces of military equipment (including tanks, IFVs, ACVs, and artillery systems) and more than 1,000 aircraft (fixed and rotary wing, and UAVs) are also reported to be involved.
If these numbers are true, then Vostok 2018 will indeed be the largest Russian military exercise since 1981, when the Soviet Union prepared to invade Poland. However, many military analysts doubt the claimed numbers, as well as Defence Minister Shoigu’s declaration that only modernised and new equipment and armaments will be used during the exercise.
The Kremlin has not revealed an official scenario for Vostok 2018, although it is evident that Russia is preparing for potential large-scale conflicts both in the West, against NATO and/or Ukraine, and in the East, where the situation around the Korean Peninsula remains volatile and China is increasingly challenging American (and Russian) military dominance. It seems, however, that Russia does not have sufficient conventional forces to fight major conflicts in both theatres concurrently. The deployment in one direction of forces of the magnitude reported to be involved in Vostok 2018 would leave Russia vulnerable and exposed in other directions, and totally dependent on its nuclear deterrent.
Russia is also expected to use Vostok 2018 to implement lessons learned from Syria, where all its higher military commanders and its most capable troops have gained experience in modern, expeditionary asymmetric warfare, and new weapons have been tested on local populations. China is undoubtedly interested in these aspects too as both countries are active in Africa and elsewhere. Russian “little green men”, camouflaged as private military companies are operating in Eritrea and the Central African Republic – although the brutal murder of Russian investigative journalists in CAR is evidence that the Kremlin does not want light shed on their doings. China, meanwhile, continues to acquire naval logistic strongholds around the Indian Ocean and is opening military bases, for example in Djibouti.
The PLA will thus participate for the first time on the Russian mainland with a contingent of 3,200. This has political and military implications for the situation in East Asia. The invitation of China both serves the purpose of “keeping the enemy close” and promotes the export of Russian arms – although China has made spectacular progress in military technology, including in stealth aircraft and engines, and in ship building, and is increasingly able to rely on domestic production.
The Kremlin certainly also hopes to demonstrate to North Korea that it is a reliable alternative to China in defending Kim’s regime against the United States. The military power demonstrated in Vostok 2018, alongside Putin’s success in saving and protecting al-Assad’s regime, could influence the North Korean dictator and allow Russia to assume a more prominent role in North Korean affairs.
While Mongolia’s marginal participation in the exercise is hardly a surprise, the Kremlin’s invitation to Turkey is a far more interesting aspect. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly contemplated Turkey joining the Russian and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as an alternative to cooperation and alliance with the United States and Europe. Turkey and the United States, meanwhile, are at odds over Fethullah Gülen, Turkey’s purchase of S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia, and American sanctions against Turkey including delays in the transfer of F-35 fighter aircraft. It is no surprise, then, that Russia would try to pull Turkey even further from the West. Turkey’s hesitation in participating in Vostok 2018 may be at least partly explained by the discord at the trilateral Russia-Iran-Turkey summit in Teheran concerning Syria’s Idlib province. Turkey apparently opposes the “liberation” of Idlib if it involves the total destruction and mass murder seen in Aleppo and East-Ghouta.
Russia has also timed Vostok 2018 to coincide with the summit meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum, which takes place in Vladivostok from 11 to 13 September. Vladimir Putin will shake hands with President Xi, Prime Minister Abe and President Moon, before observing the “unprecedented” (according to the state news agency TASS) strategic military exercise. The leaders of China, Japan and South Korea are clearly meant to be impressed with the combination of military might and the offer of enhanced economic cooperation.
Finally, Vostok 2018 is intended to be a showcase for President Putin’s regime. Domestically, it aims to demonstrate to Russia’s population the re-emergence of past glory and might, and the value of investing in the military (instead of, say, healthcare and education). Abroad, it is intended to show the West and China that Russia is much more capable (and dangerous) than generally assumed, even as its economy is unable to attract foreign direct investments, becomes more isolated and stagnates. Russia’s only (relative) strength seems to be its military, which the Kremlin is desperate to modernise and exhibit – but it is in economic terms that the East Asian powers assembled in Vladivostok measure each other’s status.