By Caroline Sha
During the week of September 11, 2018, Russia hosted its biggest war games since the Cold War. Called Vostok, these exercises included Russian soldiers as well as some Chinese troops showcasing the might and strategies of their militaries. Tanks rolled over the Eastern Siberian expanse while their drivers held a continuous salute; aircraft flew in formation in the blue sky; artillery was fired over vast distances; and soldiers flew drones and performed activities such as anti-terrorism drills. In total, there were 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, 1,000 aircraft, and 80 boats participating. And that’s not even counting the 3,200 Chinese troops who also took part. To put all of these numbers in perspective, “that’s double the size of the British armed forces. It’s also twice the size of the last Vostok war games, held back in 2014”. Russia, it seems, remains the military superpower it has been for almost a century.
But what does this mean for international relations? What is Putin’s endgame in doing all of this? According to Moscow, these war games were held in order to practice joint operations in the east and to mobilize troops into Russia’s eastern edge. However, as the case always is with the Federation, there is more than one ulterior motive for their actions. One of those includes Putin’s desire to remobilize the army and to show the world that he is doing just that. Russia’s foreign policy has been one of continuous aggression since Putin took power. Take the war with Chechnya, the invasion of Crimea, and the continued support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria as the most prominent examples. Even more, just last year, in 2017, Russia held its Zapad (West) military games, which were the biggest in years. Though the Kremlin officially stated that only 12,700 troops participated, NATO claims more than 100,000 personnel were involved. They simulated an invasion on the Baltic States, a possible first action if war ever broke out between Russia and the EU. Though this newest development could seem alarming to some, it changes nothing for foreign relations; it does nothing more than revalidate the tension between Russia and the West.
That brings us to the question of why China would possibly want to get involved in all of this. One simple reason is that the Chinese army has a lot to learn from the Russian military. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the communist country’s armed forces, hasn’t seen real combat since the Vietnam War, which ended more than 40 years ago. Russia’s military, meanwhile, has recently fought in Syria and Ukraine, acquiring valuable experience that the PLA is sorely in need of. Still, the main explanation is that the communist state wishes to show its readiness to strengthen its ties with Russia as Sino-American ties deteriorate. Many in both Beijing and the United States fear that Donald Trump’s recent threats may cause a total trade war between the two superpowers. Even worse, Mike Pence, the vice president, has claimed that China is meddling with the midterm elections in order to get rid of the president, further souring relations. With both sides unlikely to back down, China must find another ally who could stand with them against the highly influential United States if things go completely south. However, this is most definitely not an indication that Russia and China are ready to fully cooperate with each other. The two, despite having a relatively close relationship, often find themselves extremely close to conflict, whether it be over influence over Central Asia or the Arctic. This supposed show of unity is another mirage covering up the fact that they are no closer to a traditional alliance than before. There is simply too much tension between these two neighbors and even fear of the United States won’t dissipate that.
In the end, however, Russia isn’t gearing up for any particular large-scale conflict. Putin has no intention of starting World War III and these exercises are just simple politics. Russia has always tried to misdirect the world, from the Cold War until now. It's unlikely that the Kremlin will translate this strategy to real action anytime soon, so there’s no need for a mass panic. But, that’s not to say that world leaders can relax and let this vast show of power go. In order to prevent disaster, it is important that NATO and every other country keep a careful eye on Russia. For in this ever changing and turbulent world, who knows what will actually happen? Old Putin may just surprise us all.