Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu briefs President Vladimir Putin on the Vostok-2014 military exercises via video linkup, Sept. 23, 2014.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu briefs President Vladimir Putin on the Vostok-2014 military exercises via video linkup, Sept. 23, 2014.

Vostok-2018: Russia and China Signal Growing Military Cooperation

September 10, 2018
Michael Kofman

Russia’s minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, has promised that this month’s Vostok-2018 strategic maneuvers will be the country’s largest military exercise since 1981, citing participation figures as high as 300,000 troops and 36,000 vehicles. While the real numbers are certain to be much smaller, Vostok—which translates as “east”—is typically among the largest of Russia’s annual strategic exercises and merits attention. This year’s event has heightened geopolitical significance, with China participating directly for the first time in the exercise itself, planning to send 3,200 troops and a mix of 30 aircraft. This demonstration of Sino-Russian defense cooperation is an intentional signal, suggesting each country sees the other as much less of a threat than the increasing pressure from the United States.

Every September Russia launches a strategic exercise, rotating among four “strategic directions.” Vostok-2018, as the name suggests, will take place in Russia’s Far East, Sept. 11-17. However, this year’s exercise deviates considerably from the norm. Instead of a strategic-staff exercise, Russia is holding “strategic maneuvers,” technically a higher level of exercise in the chosen theater of military operations. Rather than focus on a single strategic direction, where one military district is reinforced by the rest, Russian forces from several districts and fleets will split into two opposing teams. Vostok-2018 will feature an “eastern” force composed of the Eastern Military District, the Pacific Fleet and Chinese units, exercising against a “western” force formed by the Central Military District and the Northern Fleet. Strategic maneuvers emphasize a larger grouping of forces working in multiple strategic directions, and are more suitable for holding in conjunction with other countries. Rather than exercise jointly against a single hypothetical enemy, which in this case might be presumed to be the United States and Japan, the exercise features two opposing forces made up of Russian units.  This scheme harkens back to Soviet drills in the mid-1930s, when similar exercises were held.  

Whether a strategic-staff exercise or a strategic maneuver, this annual undertaking is not simply another exercise for the Russian armed forces, but simulates a large-scale conventional conflict, in which military and civilian authorities must work together. Ultimately this is a rehearsal for mobilization of the state, civilian infrastructure, internal security and reserves, stress-testing command and control across different regions in the event of a general war. Snap readiness checks began Aug. 20, Russian forces have been raised on alert across several military districts, engaging in simultaneous exercises across the country. Such annual strategic exercises are typically followed by a nuclear-forces exercise later in the fall, plus certification checks and other events running through November.

The Eastern Military District is distinct in that, unlike other districts, it is expected to fight largely alone. This part of the country is vast, with little population, limited infrastructure and dispersed garrisons. As such, it is host to many ground force formations, missile brigades and what constitutes a self-sufficient grouping of units. In the event of conflict this district expects to be reinforced by the Central Military District, but, far from most of the military infrastructure and units based west of the Urals, the Far East is expected to hold its own for as long as possible.

Despite grand pronouncements by Russian officials indicating that the exercise will involve 300,000 participants, which would constitute one third of the entire Russian armed forces, the real number is likely to be much lower. Russia’s Defense Ministry has a unique method for counting the number of troops involved in exercises, which ranges from “true lies” to pure fiction. Under this counting system, brigades and divisions who supply a mere battalion, or are only involved at the command-staff level, are counted in their entirety. Thus the number of participants quickly becomes exaggerated, and often ministry officials revise it upwards after the fact. For example, Vostok-2014 was initially listed as having 100,000 participants; then the ministry decided this number was insufficiently impressive and revised it upwards to 155,000. Vostok in particular is prone to inflation because it is not governed by the Vienna Document political agreements on military exercises in Europe, there is no attendant risk of creating a security dilemma vis-à-vis NATO, and thus no down side to outlandish claims. The problem is that such figures are on occasion taken seriously—entire articles have been written comparing NATO’s actual exercise figures with Russia’s made-up numbers.

Russia’s inclusion of China in this exercise and Beijing’s decision to increase the profile of its military-to-military engagement with Moscow send important signals. First, if China were not taking part, any exercise on this scale would inherently rouse suspicion from Chinese officials that the war games are aimed at them. Therefore inviting Chinese involvement is a logical step if Moscow seeks to avoid inadvertently stirring apprehension in Beijing. The goal is to appear friendly, making sure that the capabilities exercised are not perceived as a threat. Indeed, starting in 2014, Moscow has been careful to make the exercise scenario for Vostok based more on aerospace and naval attack—i.e., aimed at U.S. expeditionary forces and their Pacific allies, as opposed to a land-based contingency that implies fighting Chinese forces.

Official Chinese involvement is yet another indicator that Russia and China are more inclined to balance the United States rather than each other. Although defense establishments fixate on capability, at the end of the day countries balance threats based on a holistic interpretation that includes perceptions of a potential adversary’s intentions and pattern of behavior. With joint exercises, increased defense cooperation and engagement among senior officials, the Russian and Chinese establishments are signaling that they do not see each other as a threat. This does not mean that they will enter an entente, but it is an important early step along that arc.

Russia, for its part, has steadily, methodically sought to pull China into a balancing configuration against Washington. In this context it should come as no surprise that Chinese involvement alongside large-scale Russian exercises is not entirely new. Russia and China held joint drills in the Pacific during last year’s Zapad strategic exercise, which traditionally focuses on Russia’s western boundaries. Those drills were part of reciprocal exercises Russia and China have been holding every year.

As suggested above, the driving factor in increased Sino-Russian military engagement is not mutual trust or affection—neither is especially necessary for powers to ally or work together; it is instead the United States, which has named both countries as competitors in its National Defense Strategy. Washington is intensifying the military dimension of its competition with both states, invariably pushing them closer together as a reaction to increased pressure. Moscow—sanctioned by the West while facing a China growing quickly in economic and military power—has no strategic alternatives but to look east for security and economic cooperation. Russia has already made its choice, while China is in a deliberative mode on how to handle increased competition with the United States.

The implications for the U.S. are of paramount importance: China alone is a contender for global leadership on the basis of GDP and military power, and Russia has the resources, military technology and international position to reinforce Beijing’s ambitions. Moreover, China has the financial resources to see Russia through Western sanctions, should it choose to do so, sustaining it for years to come. Such an outcome is uncertain, but strategy is about the art of the long view.

Russia’s annual exercise is also meant to establish Russian coercive credibility, demonstrating the capability and resolve to fight a high-end conventional conflict, even in a region as distant as the Russian Far East. Given that a substantial percentage of U.S. power projection is in the Asia-Pacific region, together with many of America’s strongest allies, the region may appear to be a promising area for “horizontal escalation,” or geographical expansion, in the event of a crisis or conflict in Europe. The Russian General Staff’s mission in holding such exercises is to disabuse potential adversaries of the belief that attacking this part of Russia would not come with significant costs. Such exercises typically have a nuclear component designed to simulate Russia’s planning for intra-war deterrence—escalation management via use of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Vostok-2018 thereby helps to remind regional audiences and peer adversaries that, while Russia may not be an Asian power, it remains a power in Asia.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo courtesy of the Kremlin press service.



Michael Kofman

Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist with the CNA Corporation and a global fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center.