What not to take away from Russia’s Vostok 18 military exercises

The Russian Ministry of Defense has announced that its “Vostok 18” military exercises, billed as the largest since 1981, have begun, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin will personally attend the exercises on Thursday.

According to Army General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, the exercise will run from September 11 to 17, with the first two days reserved for planning. He added that it will reportedly involve around 297,000 personnel; more than 1,000 aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles; up to 36,000 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and other military equipment; as well as 80 ships and support vessels.

As noted by the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Monitor [Vol. 15, Issue 126]:

Gerasimov also explained that, in addition to special pre-exercise tactical exercises, Vostok 2018 would be preceded by snap inspections of Russia’s Armed Forces. He explained that following the introduction of snap inspections in 2013, the General Staff had identified flaws in relation to strategic mobility that were corrected ahead of deploying forces to Syria in 2015 and have since been further refined. This relates to deploying forces internally across large distances utilizing a reformed military logistics system. … Gerasimov also confirmed that 126 battalion tactical groups fully manned by contract personnel have been formed within the VDV and Ground Forces.

Analysis: While advertised as the largest military exercises since the heady days of the Cold War — exercises which involve around 3,000 Chinese and Mongolian troops — we caution that the troop figures may not be altogether accurate.

There’s no question that a lot of forces will be involved, but the final number may be far lower because Russia has a tendency to overstate figures. For example, MoD officials claimed that Vostok 2014 was the largest exercise to take place since the fall of the Soviet Union, but in the end, actual numbers according to observers and other available data were far lower.

As for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, its forces will have only restricted access to the military exercises, though they will be involved in joint offensive ground operations. At somewhere around 3,200 troops, the size of the Chinese and Mongolian contingents are very small if in fact Vostok 2018 is supposed to be preparation for the next global war.

What is more likely is that Beijing added incentives for Moscow to allow its inclusion in the drills while the Russians provided the Chinese with operational experience their troops have gained in Syria.

It’s also important to remember that Vostok 18 is at its core a standard exercise that marks the end of the combat training year for the MoD, while also serving as an opportunity to showcase some of the latest Russian capabilities and weapons development to partner countries. Such exercises tend to spark much speculation among Western military observers and experts, but the suggestion that Vostok 18 marks the beginning of some formal Russia-China military alliance is premature.

Prior to the exercise launching, the Russian MoD also invited Turkey, a NATO member, to participate. But no one is suggestions, seriously anyway, that a Russia/Turkey alliance will soon happen.

There will be much for Western intelligence services to glean from this exercise, which will be large and expensive, no doubt, but which is less likely to be as all-inclusive and as well-attended as first thought.

And not nearly as threatening.


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