As Russia launches Vostok (“East”) 18, its largest war games since the early 1980s that will involve 300,000 troops, 1,000 combat aircraft, two naval fleets, and 10,000-plus combat vehicles and artillery pieces, NATO is preparing for its own large-scale war games along Russia’s western flank.
The Russian exercise, which will involve a 3,200-troop contingent from China and Mongolia, are meant to demonstrate that Moscow’s forces are not only numerous and capable, but formidable and ready defend Russian interests. But so, too, is NATO’s exercise, “Trident Junction,” according to a former Supreme Allied Commander/Europe, Adm. James Stavridis (Ret.) It will involve some 40,000 troops.
“These games are hardly for fun — rather, they are deadly serious practice sessions for hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thousands of combat aircraft, and flotillas of combat ships. While no one will die (other than by accident, a not uncommon occurrence in such exercises), the messages going back and forth are crystal clear: We are prepared for war,” he wrote.
The fact that the Russian and Chinese forces are combining for Vostok is a sign that in any future conflict, both nations are preparing to become allied against the United States and whatever allies Washington can cobble together in the Indo-Pacific region. That, Stavridis writes, should be “worrisome” to the Pentagon and NATO.
Analysis: Stavridis makes four points that are noteworthy.
First, he states that there is much messaging taking place here. From Moscow’s perspective, President Putin is showing not just NATO but the prideful Russian people their military is professional, ready, and willing to defend the country’s interests.
Second, he notes that the Vostok 18 was initially meant as a show of force against China (evidenced by the fact that it is taking place in Russia’s Far East, opposite China). Russia and China have flirted with alliances off-and-on for decades, and there has been infrequent cooperation, militarily, in mutually beneficial areas. That Moscow is drawing closer to Beijing now, and vice-versa, is again more a matter of convenience of the moment, as the U.S. military continues to advance and NATO armies become more capable than they have been in a decade.
Third, both exercises will improve the interoperability of all forces involved.
Fourth, Stavridis says it is not a coincidence that the NATO exercise will be commanded by a U.S. Navy flag officer, Adm. Jamie Foggo, a former commander of NATO submarine forces and the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Russian and NATO naval forces are bulking up in the Med and the Black Sea. “There will be significant maritime groups both from NATO and Russia operating in the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, eastern Mediterranean and even the Arctic,” he wrote.
The cost of staging these exercises aside, they also took months to plan. The logistics alone — moving troops, food, equipment, medical gear, fleets, aircraft, and armed vehicles — for 300,000 personnel is a monumental task in and of itself. Moscow would not have undertaken this effort on a whim or if the real objective of the exercises was anything other than a dress rehearsal for war with either NATO or China.
Also of note: Finland and Sweden, NATO partners but not alliance members, are also sending forces to the NATO exercise, which no doubt has gotten the attention of Putin who would much rather neither of those countries joined.
Few should want war either in Asia or Europe, but both Russia and China are revisionist powers with an eye towards spreading their influence around the globe to challenge the current U.S.-led order whenever and wherever they feel they can be successful. They will need capable militaries to back up their ambitions. That brings us closer to, not farther from, great power war.