Russia launched its largest war games since the Cold War on Tuesday with hundreds of thousands of troops, including Chinese soldiers taking part for the first time, in eastern Siberia.
The massive military manoeuvres come as tensions between the West and Russia have intensified to the highest level since the days of the Soviet Union. The drills have been condemned by NATO as a rehearsal for a “large-scale conflict”.
Dubbed Vostok-2018, the war games involve more than 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships and support vessels, according to Russia’s defence ministry.
It broadcast images of military trucks being transported on trains, columns of tanks, armoured vehicles and naval vessels on the move, and combat helicopters and fighter aircraft taking off.
The main aim was to check the military’s readiness to move troops large distances, to test how closely infantry and naval forces cooperated, and to perfect command and control procedures, the ministry said. Later stages will involve rehearsals of both defensive and offensive scenarios.
Russia said 24 helicopters and six jets belonging to the Chinese air force had moved to Russian air bases for the exercise.
Beijing has said 3,200 members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will join in the operations, about 5,000km east of Moscow.
NATO has said it will monitor the exercise closely as will the United States, which has a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. It is likely to be watched attentively by Japan and North and South Korea.
The start of Vostok-2018 coincided with a meeting between Russia‘s President Vladimir Putin who met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.
Putin said Moscow has a “trusting relationship” with Beijing “in politics, security and defence”, while Xi said both countries would continue to “make joint efforts to … push the China-Russia relationship up to a new height”.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, said the coming together of Moscow and Beijing was a direct response to moves by the United States.
“Clearly we can see a growing rapprochement between Russia and China because of the very assertive line against both countries by the United States. And in this regard we can say that Donald Trump is the major patron of the Russian-Chinese closer relationship,” said Lukyanov.
Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian army colonel and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank, agreed.
“With its Vostok-2018 exercise Russia sends a message that it regards the US as a potential enemy and China as a potential ally,” wrote Trenin.
Wednesday will see war games featuring anti-aircraft technology, while the main event will be on Thursday.
The Russian army compared the show of force to the USSR’s 1981 war games that saw between 100,000 and 150,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers take part in Zapad-81 – the largest military exercises of the Soviet era.
But Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu noted these exercises were far larger.
“Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles – and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible,” Shoigu said.