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Russia plays war games with nuclear rivals China and India

Units of 201st military base of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Tajikistan.
Units of 201st military base of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Tajikistan. Russian Ministry of Defence

For the first time ever, regional rivals China and India are taking part in joint military exercises organised by Russia. This year’s theme is the battle against an imaginary terrorist state in Central Asia. But what is the real message?

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Russia holds yearly military exercises that rotate among the military districts Zapad (West), Vostok (East), Tsentr (Center) and Kavkaz (Caucasus).

Russia is very keen to show that it has wider alliances, broader partnerships than just China

The 2019 exercises are taking place in the Orenburg region in the Tsentr district, between September 16 and 21.

According to Russia’s Tass news agency, a total of 128.000 troops will take part in this year's event.

Emblem of the Russian Central "Tsentr" Military District
Emblem of the Russian Central "Tsentr" Military District Wikimedia Commons

Chinese and Indian participation in the exercises is presented as merely “symbolic”. Yet, according to the official Global Times, China sent 1600 troops from its Western Theater Command, and main battle equipment including tanks, bombers, and the advanced Shenyang J-11 fighter, modeled after the Russian Sukhoi 27.

Last year, China sent 3000 troops to the Vostok-2018 drills.

“Russia is very keen to show that it has wider alliances, broader partnerships than just China,” says Pavel Baev, research professor with the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Prio)

India sent several hundred troops, exercising at the Donguz Ranges, a military test site.

The exact location where the Chinese operate is not reported, but Baev thinks it is unlikely that soldiers of China and India – regional arch rivals -- will train together.

Chinese defense spokesperson Ren Guoqiang said that the exercise is “not targeted against any third party and has nothing to do with the regional situation.”

Border skirmishes

Apart from China, Tsentr 2019 includes forces from Pakistan (as an observer state), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

But while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both take part in the Russian military drills, they are currently fighting - sometimes deadly - border skirmishes.

“Russia is keeping a very low profile on this, no official comments, no press, somehow they pretend it is not happening,” says Baev.

Ironically, Moscow has a military presence at the Kant Air Force base in Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) while Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe is home to Russia’s 201st military base.

“Russia is not really able to deliver any security, while it does have military bases in both Kirgizstan and Tajikistan, but its role is not as solid as Russia is trying to demonstrate,” he thinks.

Signal to Nato

The official goal of this year’s exercises is, according to Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Colonel-General Alexander Fomin quoted by Tass, to counter “the influence of Islamic extremism on countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.”

Tsentr 2019’s main scenario includes the fight against an imaginary country “responsible for spawning terrorism and unleashing war”.

But according to Baez, this is just a red herring.

“Russia tries to downplay the exercises, saying 'it is all about Central Asia, the southern theatre,' and it has nothing to do with Russia’s western borders.

“But the whole scale of the exercises and the desire to demonstrate new capabilities related to both air defence and the capacity for long-distance strikes is a hidden message to Nato that Russian power projection capabilities are on the increase from year to year, that new technologies are being deployed,” he says.

“The message is not given officially, but in many hidden ways.”

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