Recently, Russia launched its largest military maneuvers since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exercise involved redeploying one hundred and sixty thousand soldiers and officers, along with one hundred and thirty aircraft and helicopters of various types, to the Eastern Military District. Seventy ships from the Russian Pacific Fleet also took part, on the heels of a large-scale naval exercise with the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Russian defense minister Sergey Shoygu says that the maneuvers also include seven hundred railway platforms and fifty rail cars. These exercises involved radiation and chemical warfare decontamination, naval rocket and artillery fire, and naval rescue operations.
The fact that the maneuvers were conducted under the direct supervision of President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Shoygu shows their great importance, and was clearly a signal to multiple international audiences.
Despite Russia’s statements that the maneuvers were part of routine military training, their scale suggests that they were more likely meant to demonstrate the power of the modern Russian military to Russia’s friends and enemies.
In the nineteenth century, Czar Alexander III famously said, “Russia only has two allies: the army and the navy.” Just as in the days of Alexander III, today's Russia doesn't have a tremendous number of allies. Belarus, Ecuador, Syria and Venezuela don’t count, really.
Yet the number and type of Russian military services, the “true allies” of Mother Russia, just keep growing— Strategic Rocket Forces , Aerospace Defense Forces , and most recently, cyber troops were formed as new branches of the Russian military.
Such recent military maneuvers are a symptom of Putin’s “ Fortress Russia ” strategic approach. Many experts expect China and Japan to watch attentively. These two countries are being sent an unambiguous signal about the combat readiness of the Russian military.
According to Konstantin Sivkov, a retired officer of the Russian General Staff of the Armed Forces, the maneuvers are meant to imitate a Russian response to a potential attack from the United States or Japan.
The theater of the maneuvers also includes Sakhalin Island and the Kuriles, an island chain known in Japan as “The Northern Territories,” and the subject of a dispute between Moscow and Tokyo, which did not sign a formal peace treaty at the end of World War II.
However, these exercises are also meant to deter China. While Russia and China enjoy close economic ties and deep military cooperation, Russia’s strategic outlook— despite recent pronouncements —in the Far East is bleak. Granted, Beijing and Moscow recently conducted a joint military exercise in the Sea of Japan, and press reports suggest Russia is selling modern SU-35 Russian aircraft and possibly advanced Lada-class submarines to China.
However, despite their closeness, China's increasing military potential is a concern for its northern neighbor. A relatively weak Russian military would encourage China, if Beijing were ever to consider an attempt—however unlikely in today’s international environment—to acquire new territories for its constantly growing population. The fact that China still calls some of its nineteenth-century border treaties with Russia “unequal” only fuels Russian anxieties.
In 2004, Moscow and Beijing signed a new border treaty that gave China control over Tarabarov Island and half of Bolshoy Ussuriyskiy Island. However, Moscow believes that the concessions must end, and these agreements must not whet Beijing’s appetite for more Russian land in the future. Aleksandr Khramchikhin, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, noted that the maneuvers are a “sobering signal” to Beijing not to contemplate any action towards Russia involving the use of force.
Acquiring new territories from a nuclear-armed state would be a lengthy, dangerous and expensive enterprise for China. The political goal of bringing the Russian Far East into China’s sphere of influence is more easily achievable by economic expansion, rather than by military aggression. Nevertheless, the Kremlin decided to demonstrate its military readiness—“just in case.” Russia understands that China’s conventional military strength currently surpasses its own and is still growing. Moscow has clearly decided that it stands to gain by intensifying its military cooperation with Beijing—but prefers to keep its powder dry.
The Russian military maneuvers involve not just its nuclear arsenal, but also conventional forces. The one hundred and sixty thousand soldiers engaged in the exercise demonstrate Moscow’s ability to deploy a large force along the Chinese border within days. They also may be a rehearsal for a contingency that focuses on a large-scale intervention in Central Asia after the 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops. The maneuvers are also seen as a test of how well newly appointed defense minister Sergey Shoygu is capable of managing the Russian military.
Washington should be playing close attention Russia’s show of force, especially since the fighting ability of its military has increased since the 2008 Five-Day War with Georgia. The fact that the Russian military is now more combat-ready than five years ago needs to be taken into consideration not only by the United States, but also by the other NATO countries.