Three Questions from Last Month’s Giant Vostok Exercise

Russian, Chinese and Mongolian national flags set on armored vehicles develop in the wind during a military exercises on training ground "Tsugol", during the military exercises Vostok 2018 in Eastern Siberia, Russia, Sept. 13, 2018.

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

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Russian, Chinese and Mongolian national flags set on armored vehicles develop in the wind during a military exercises on training ground "Tsugol", during the military exercises Vostok 2018 in Eastern Siberia, Russia, Sept. 13, 2018.

What should American strategists take away from China’s participation in Moscow’s biggest annual wargames?

This year’s edition of Russia’s giant annual joint exercise—Vostok (East) 2018—was notable for its sizable Chinese and small Mongolian contingent, and for its multi-theater strategic scope. Previous Chinese participation in Russian wargames were small-scale affairs, held under the rubric of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or show-the-flag combined naval exercises in the Baltic, Mediterranean, and South China Seas. But September’s event saw a 3,200-troop Chinese contingent join a reported 297,000 Russians pulled from the Eastern and Central Military Districts and elsewhere for training on the Tsugol range near Chita in eastern Siberia’s Trans-Baikal region. (For an excellent, detailed look at Vostok 2018, see CNA Senior Research Scientist Michael Kofman’s blog posts on the exercise.)

Now, a month after the exercise’s dust has settled, these new twists invite a few questions:

  • Was it a real effort to move beyond basic military-to-military cooperation toward actual interoperability?
  • Were the Russians and Chinese troops combining tactics, techniques and procedures; honing command and control; and even sharing basic combat intelligence?
  • And most of all, are these massive, well-publicized annual events also designed to psychologically mobilize Russian society to prepare for the possibility of general war with the West, which the Russian government publicly portrays as its most likely existential threat?

There is no doubt of the importance that President Vladimir Putin attaches to the giant wargames, which he attends annually with a swarm of reporters in tow. I witnessed such visits as an official attaché observer at the Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2012 exercise near the Black Sea and the Zapad (West) exercise in Kaliningrad, wedged between nervous Poland and Lithuania. This year, Putin came straight from his meeting with China’s Xi Jinping at the East Asia Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

These annual Russian extravaganzas are far beyond the scope of any U.S. and allied military exercises (although Russian media takes pains to call them menacing), involving land, naval, and air assets and even exercising nuclear weapons command procedures. Additionally, thousands of civilians and support personnel man mobilization centers, move massive tonnages of supplies and ammunition with rail and pipeline personnel, and shunt and fly troops including airborne units in from other districts. All these are likely included among the troop numbers that appeared quite inflated at Vostok with entire units counted when only components participated.

In short, why are Russians preparing for a major war that they don’t want?

We must remember that Russia has an utterly different view of danger than we do. Moscow sees the world through a prism of real, perceived, and contrived existential threats that are impossible for us to fully fathom. This viewpoint reflects a rich but tortured history that dates back a millennium, from the horrific Mongol incursions in the 1200s to the merciless 1941 Nazi invasion—the latter still very much in living memory. A staggering 20 to 26 million Soviets, including countless civilians, perished just 75 years ago.

It also reflects a vast landmass that helps explain the nation’s blinkered, defensive global threat view. Size is often construed as strength, but Russia sees its sprawling geography as vulnerability, filled with potential threats from all azimuths, including a frustrating west, turbulent south, growingly assertive east, and melting Arctic north.

One final vulnerability is demography. Russia’s ethnically diverse population is about 40 percent of the United States’, one-third of the European Union’s and one-ninth of China’s.

This painful past is hardly justification for recent egregious acts, such as 2014’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea. But they do help explain the nation’s expensive annual military exercises. Last year, NATO and the EU hyperventilated in anticipation of the Western District’s exercise (Zapad 2017) that brought large Russian tank formations maneuvering near the sensitive Baltic States and prickly Belarus. A year earlier, Southern District forces exercised in the Russian Black Sea and Caucasus mountain region. (The July 2008 edition of the same Southern exercise became the springboard for Russia’s invasion of Georgia just one month later.) Most unpredictable, however, are the no-notice “snap exercises” that the Russians periodically orchestrate to exercise mobilization and force flexibility. These can occur anytime and anywhere within Russia, and can immediately create leverage and put pressure on a major regional stress point.

So why was China included in Vostok 2018? Why now? True, Russia and China have come a long way since their vicious border clashes of 1969. They pragmatically resolved those issues in 2004 and 2005, because both were focused on other regions: Russia to the west and south and China to the southeast and India. On that score, the old axiom “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” seems to have taken transactional hold.

But what about on a deeper level? Much of Russia’s resource-rich Far East north and east of the Amur and Ussuri rivers was annexed by Czarist Russia in the 1850s from a moribund Qing Dynasty, a usurpation that still festers for Beijing. On the other hand, Russian citizens in the region complain about Chinese aggressive traders and settlers, and illegal resource-culling, especially logging and poaching. Neither country nor its core peoples (Han Chinese and European Russians) are traditional friends; they are as historically, ethnically, religiously, geographically and philosophically different as peoples can be.

Near-term, one can expect to see more Russian-Chinese military and economic cooperation. Looking farther ahead, however, how will Russia manage the geostrategic and demographic time bomb ticking away in its Far East? China’s Achilles Heel is its lack of natural resources, which Russia has in abundance—not just oil and natural gas, but all types. Secure access to resources will become central to China’s continued growth and existence in the years ahead.

Key to watch will be the further development of China’s economic and resource-focused Belt and Road Initiative, envisioned to bore its way in part through the southern lands of the Former Soviet Union through Iran and the Caspian region to Europe. Russia is officially on board and investing in this massive endeavor. And there’s China’s public interest in a Polar Silk Road as well. Given its history and geography, however, can Moscow really be comfortable with China projecting its influence into Russia’s former Soviet backyard? How can Russia manage this massive Chinese-driven project, that to the eyes of a chess-playing strategist in Moscow could be seen akin to the encircling Confucian game of “Go,” strategically enveloping sparsely-populated Russian Asia?

U.S. and allied policy regarding both Russia and China should continue to be strong, patient and predictable, with a focus on specific issues that 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 Russia and China as a conjoined threat, thereby creating a potential “self-fulfilling prophecy” where they could—especially if they perceive themselves as being individually isolated—temporally ally in some type of powerful, transactional Pact. We should watch and learn from these military exercises, assure allies and partners as necessary, but not overreact to their actions and rhetoric nor appear to try to drive a wedge between them. The wedges are already there, in the form of history, geography, demography, and resources, and they will inevitably play out in the generations ahead.

These are the author’s personal views and perspectives and not those of the U.S. government.

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