Russia war games aim to split Nato, court China

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin Reuters

On Tuesday Russia starts the biggest military drills in its history involving 300,000 of its troops as well as Chinese soldiers. Nato has denounced the war games, called “Vostok 2018”, as showing that Russia is focussing on "exercising large-scale conflict".


The exercise comes at a time of escalating tensions between Moscow and the West over accusations of Russian interference in Western affairs and the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

With this exercise, “Vostok [East] 2018,” Moscow is giving several signals.

First and foremost it aims to show the US that Russia is capable of staging this kind of massive exercise while engaged in wars on two fronts, eastern Ukraine and Syria.

But Moscow is also sending a message to China.

“Russia wants to show to its strategic partner that its military might is relevant in the Asia-Pacific region,” says Pavel Baev, a research professor with the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

“A lot of Russian military preparations were concentrated on the western theatre, while in fact a lot of tensions are in the Asia-Pacific, in the east.

So [ ... ] Russia wants to show that it is not completely stuck in places like Syria and [the eastern Ukrainian region of] Donbass, it needs to prove to China that its military might can be a useful instrument of politics in the east.

Chinese hope to learn

Some 3,000 Chinese military and observers are taking part in these exercises and analysts believe they are there not just out of courtesy but also to learn from Russian experience on the battlefield in Syria.

Of the three military powerhouses US, Russia and China, the Chinese Liberation Army may be the largest in numbers but it has not had any experience in war situations since the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979.

Chinese troops are also absent from the war in Syria. But this may change.

The Chinese ambassador to Syria was quoted in the Lebanese web publication Rai El Youm as saying that the Chinese army would be willing to participate in the fight against jihadi groups either in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib, which Bashar al-Assad's regime aims to recapture, or in other parts of Syria.

“He is offering special forces or consultants in order to support the fight of the Syrians in Idlib,” says Günter Meyer, Director for the Centre for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz.

Uighur Islamists targeted

Beijing’s military would target Uighur fighters from the Turkestan Islamic Party, which wants to establish an Islamic state in China's Xinjiang province.

They have been active in Syria for over five years and are known to support the Islamic State armed group and the Al Qaeda offshoot the Al-Nusra Front.

“They are a real threat for the Chinese,” explains Meyer. “When these fighters return to China, this is something which the Chinese government doesn’t like at all.”

“Russia had compiled some of its lessons from the Syrian war in military textbooks for Russian military academies and it would be among the information shared with the Chinese troops," a Chinese military told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Signal to Nato

The main focus of the Vostok 2018 war games is to give a signal to the US and its Nato allies, and, some say, to help split the Western alliance.

For that purpose, indicates Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst with the Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, Moscow may have invited Turkey to be present at the Vostok 2018 war games.

If Ankara sends representatives, it will further strain its relationship with Nato, which is already tense because of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems.

A major strategic goal is to pull Turkey out of Nato

Russian war games biggest ever

“A major strategic goal is to pull Turkey out of Nato,” says Felgenhauer.

Russian strategy is centred on the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, straits in Turkey that allow access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, he argues.

Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine because it gives better control of the straits, he says. “And now there is a distinct possibility that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, with his erratic policies, will run Turkey out of Nato and out of Europe. And for Russia that is a major goal.

“It is more important than Syria or anything, to have a friendly regime in Turkey could be seen as a paramount strategic success,” Felgenhauer argues.

The Vostok 2018 exercises will last five days and end on 15 September.

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