Russia launches a week of massive military exercises in the far east of the country this week and the Pentagon will be watching the “war games” very closely, experts told CNBC. As many as 300,000 Russian troops are expected to take part in large-scale military drills as part of “Vostok 2018,” Russia's annual military training exercises taking place between September 11-17.
Aside from personnel, up to 36,000 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles will be involved, Russia's Ministry of Defence said in a statement on their website on Tuesday. In addition, over 1,000 aircraft, helicopters and drones, and 80 ships and supply vessels will take part. Vostok 2018 will also see the Russian military practice massive airstrikes and measures against cruise missiles.
This year's military exercises, widely known as “war games,” are set to be the biggest to take place since 1981 when the Cold War overshadowed international relations.
Russia is showing a diplomatic pivot to the east with China this year, with several thousands of its troops, participating in some of the military exercises taking place in the Siberian and the Far Eastern regions of Russia. Mongolia is also sending troops to be involved in the drills.
The Pentagon will be watching Russia and China's expanding military capabilities, as well the upcoming “war games,” very closely, according to a former U.S. national security official.
“I'm not sure that the Pentagon is terribly surprised by this (military exercise),” Lincoln Bloomfield, Distinguished Fellow and Chairman Emeritus at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research center, told CNBC on Tuesday.
“The Russians have been investing in some fairly sophisticated and troublesome systems, they're looking at the growing access to the Arctic and developing submarines, and I think the Pentagon is watching Russia very closely,” he told CNBC's “Capital Connection”.
“Because (Russia has) an experienced military that understands expeditionary operations whereas China is a little bit new to that and the culture of China has not demonstrated itself to be overtly aggressive in a military way against important powers like the U.S. So, I think the Pentagon is watching very closely but they're looking at it (Russia and China's military cooperation) as a long, incremental process,” Bloomfield, who served as a national security official in three previous administrations, noted.
Defensive, not offensive. Russia's defense ministry say the main objectives of the war games are to ensure Russia's military security and the preparedness of its troops and commanders. “The main objectives of the maneuvers are: to check readiness of command and control bodies when planning and regrouping troops, cooperation of ground forces and the Navy, improve skills of commanders and staff in command and control when preparing and conducting combat actions,” Russia's defense ministry said.
Still, the games come at a time of economic recovery rather than robust growth for Russia. Despite a recovery in the oil price which has been vital for the major oil-exporter, the country is still operating under economic sanctions following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia is secretive about the cost of its massive military exercises, however. When asked by reporters if the cost of holding the exercises was justified at a time when Russia is faced with higher social spending demands, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the war games were essential.
“The country's ability to defend itself in the current international situation, which is often aggressive and unfriendly towards our country, means (it) is justified,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
Russia experts said Russia was keen to maintain an image of military strength to the rest of the world, despite the cost.
Matthew Wyman, a contemporary Russian politics specialist at Keele University, told CNBC that the games were important to Russian President Vladimir Putin because Russia wants to “carry on projecting this image to the outside world of a resurgent Russia and national strength.”
“But it's important to say that this is in the context of a cut in Russia defense spending in the last budget and it's important not to hype this up too much. As a matter of practical economics, the Kremlin can't afford to send the tanks rolling in,” he said. “Just like when Putin reinstituted the (military) parade through Red Square, this is just very high-cost posturing.”
This year's games are being held in Russia's far east (hence the name “Vostok,” which means “East”) but the annual exercises are usually held in different geographical parts of the country every year. Last year, they were held in the west (“Zapad”) of the country with “Zapad 2017” taking place along its borders with north-eastern Europe, much to the annoyance and concern of its neighbors.
The exercises come at a tense time for Russia's relations with the rest of the world. Its dogged by allegations that it meddled in the 2016 U.S. election and was responsible for a nerve agent attack in the U.K. It's military role in Syria has also caused rifts with the West. As such, its large-scale military exercises often cause consternation in the West.
But Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia's general staff, insisted last week that the Vostok 2018 exercises are purely defensive in nature and are not directed against any other countries.
“The manoeuvres are not directed against other countries and are in line with our military doctrine, which is defensive in character,” he said, news agency Interfax reported.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu gave more details about Vostok 2018 last week, saying exercises would be held across nine testing grounds, including four Aerospace Force and Air Defense grounds, and three seas: the Sea of Japan, Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea, news agency TASS reported.