The Russian military has completed its vaunted Vostok (East) 2018 exercises, which Moscow claimed involved 300,000 troops, 30,000 vehicles, 1,000 aircraft and elements of two naval fleets. Included in the exercises were contingents of Chinese and Mongolian forces.
Russia observers have cautioned that the number of Russian troops that actually participated in the exercises was probably closer to about 100,000, though that still amounts to a significant force and a major exercise.
President Vladimir Putin was on hand to view a portion of the exercises, which reports said included several new and upgraded weapons systems, all part of a military modernization program that he began some years ago.
Analysts note that lessons learned by Russian forces engaging in modern warfare in Syria were no doubt employed during the Vostok exercises. And to be sure, the participation of Chinese troops was also noteworthy.
Analysis: Though there was no formally stated ‘enemy,’ the exercises were most likely aimed at fighting the United States and NATO and Asian allies. That said, Russia really does not have any desire to engage in that kind of conflict, nor does Putin have the finances and other resources to wage a war of that scale.
But what about China’s participation? Does that tip the balance in favor of Moscow? Is an alliance in the offing?
Not likely — at least, that’s the assessment of the top Pentagon official, Defense Secretary James Mattis. “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China,” he told reporters last week.
Still, the inclusion of Chinese forces in a major Russian military exercise is a sign that there are warming relations between Moscow and Beijing, most likely the result of convenience.
An ‘alliance’ — even an informal one — serves China’s needs because China has not had its military engaged in meaningful combat since fighting a short war with Vietnam in 1979. Russia’s combat experiences in Syria, then, would be useful to Chinese forces.
But beyond that, if anything, China would use Russian troops as a foil for its own interests. With an economy many times the size of Moscow’s, coupled with Beijing’s quest to become the world’s dominant power, it’s much more likely that they will be competing with each other over the long-term rather than cooperating.
Russia simply doesn’t have the resources to do much except harass, intimidate, and — if forced to — fight quick, regional actions when its interests demand it or are threatened. That doesn’t mean Moscow lacks power, it just means that Putin’s options are far more limited than China’s in the long run.