China and Russia start Vostok exercises
Chinese troops in the 2018 Vostok manoeuvres — Sergei Grits/AP
Russia and China will embark on military exercises this week, a sign of Moscow’s deepening ties with Beijing and of the Kremlin’s desire to project a “business as usual” image despite the mounting costs of its war in Ukraine.
The Vostok war games, which begin today, are held every four years in Russia’s far east. A reported 300,000 of its troops drilled alongside those from China and Mongolia during the last exercises in 2018, with this year’s manoeuvres given added symbolism by the fighting in Ukraine, which is now into its seventh month.
Western officials and defence analysts say they illustrate the “friendship without limits” that was pledged just before war broke out by presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The war games also underline the Kremlin’s ability to maintain ties with other allies including Belarus and India, which will join the exercises.
Beijing has stressed that its participation in the Vostok exercises is “unrelated to the current international and regional situation”. Russia and China held joint military exercises in China last year, and Washington has said it does not read any new significance into the latest drills.
Still, “the fact that Vostok means ‘east’ tells you everything you need to know”, said a western defence adviser, pointing to Moscow’s support for Beijing when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province. Putin described Pelosi’s trip as a “carefully planned provocation”.
The adviser added: “Russia has lost the information war in the west, and Putin is now showing to the east that Russian life is going on as usual: that ‘We’re doing what we’re doing in Ukraine, we’re strong, and we’re going to win’.”
In a show of that strength, two Russian naval convoys last week passed through the Soya Strait that separates Russia and Japan, according to the defence ministry in Tokyo, suggesting they were heading to the exercises.
Still, with as much as three-quarters of the Russian army thought to be in Ukraine, analysts said the exercises would mostly be military theatre. While cancelling them would have sent the wrong signal, holding them may also be of little strategic benefit.
“The Vostok military exercises today make no sense,” said Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian military analyst. “Almost all Russian combat-capable units are engaged in the war in Ukraine. It’s just pretending that everything is still all right.”
Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said Moscow was “keeping its shop displays going even as the upper storeys of its building are on fire”.
Even some Russian analysts have criticised its recent military performance and its weaponry, which has been on display at an international arms expo in Moscow.
Putin boasted at the expo’s opening that the Russian military was “decades ahead” of its competitors, and that he was willing to share its technology with allies.
However, Ruslan Pukhov, a military analyst and member of the Russian defence ministry’s public council, was critical of the armed forces for “not having enough high-precision weapons and modern aiming equipment” in Ukraine.
This meant that “in the case of an artillery duel, they often beat us”, Pukhov said in a recent interview.
While some of Russia’s weapons are on a par with leading western technologies, such as its S-400 air defence systems, a lack of western components has stymied the industry’s technical capacity and hurt arms exports, analysts say.
“Russia has been losing its defence export capabilities for several years,” said Luzin, adding that its military industry had “been in deep crisis for at least six years and will not survive the current sanctions”.