This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Russia has begun massive military exercises across its central and eastern regions, starting weeklong war games the Defense Ministry says will involve some 300,000 personnel — twice as many as the biggest Soviet maneuvers of the Cold War era.
The September 11-17 exercises, called Vostok-2018 (East-2018) and billed by Moscow as its biggest in decades — or in history — come amid persistently high tension between Moscow and the West and are being closely watched by NATO.
The war games demonstrate “Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict,” NATO spokesman Dylan White said in late August, stating that the Western alliance had been briefed about Vostk-2018 and would monitor it.
“It fits into a pattern we have seen over some time — a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defense budget and its military presence,” White said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the opening day of a September 11-13 economic forum in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, is expected to observe the exercises briefly during his trip.
Chinese and Mongolian troops are taking part, amid ongoing Kremlin efforts to pursue closer ties with Beijing and other Asian capitals.
“We have a trusting relationship [with China] in the spheres of politics, security, and defense,” Putin said at the start of his meeting with Xi.
At a news conference after their talks, Xi also touted the relationship between Russia and China, which has a far larger population and an economy several times the size of Russia’s.
Xi, whose country is locked in a tense confrontation with the United States over trade and tariffs, said that Russia and China should work together to oppose protectionism and what he called unilateral approaches to international problems.
He said that an increasingly unpredictable geopolitical climate made partnership between Russia and China particularly important.
Up to 3,500 Chinese military personnel will take part in the “main scenario” of the drills at the Tsugol proving ground, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on September 4.
Alex Kokcharov, a Russia analyst at the London-based risk assessment firm HIS Markit, said that China has never before participated in war games on Russian soil that were not under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
“Fundamentally, the goal of this specific exercise is to project Russian military power in the Asia-Pacific region,” Kokcharov said. “If Russia had not invited China, that would have been viewed by Beijing as a potentially dangerous activity by Russia.”