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A new demonstration of force

What do Russia’s biggest military exercises in almost 40 years mean and what lessons should Ukraine learn from this?
05 September, 18:57

Russia is going to hold the Vostok (East)-2018 military exercise, the largest in the past 37 years, on September 11-15. The war game will embrace the territory of the Eastern (Trans-Baikal and Far East) and Central (Volga Region, Siberia, Urals) military districts. The maneuvers will involve almost 300,000 servicemen (a third of the Russian army, BBC reports), 36,000 pieces of military equipment, including armored personnel carriers and tanks, more than 1,000 warplanes and helicopters, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced.

Chinese and Mongolian military will join the exercise at a certain stage. Beijing chose to send more than 3,200 servicemen, 900 pieces of military equipment, and 30 aircraft to Russia, the Voice of America reports citing China’s Defense Ministry.

NATO’s spokesman Dylan White said Russia is focusing on exercising large-scale conflict, Radio Liberty reports. “All nations have the right to exercise their armed forces, but it is essential that this is done in a transparent and predictable manner,” White said, adding that Russia has already used its armed forces against the neighboring countries, including Ukraine and Georgia.

Minister Shoigu noted: “In some ways [Vostok 2018] will repeat aspects of Zapad (West)-81, but in other ways the scale will be bigger.” That war game, held in September 1981 by the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries on the territory of the Belorussian, Kyivan, and Baltic military districts as well as in the Baltic Sea waters with participation of at least 100,000 servicemen, is considered one of the biggest in Soviet history. The military were exercising an offensive operation, including a likely invasion of Poland.

Asked by journalists at a briefing why Vostok-2018 is of such a large scale, the Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The country’s ability to defend itself in the current international situation, which is often aggressive and unfriendly towards our country, means [the exercise] is justified, necessary, and has no alternative” (

It will be recalled that Russia and Belarus held Zapad-2017 exercises last September, in which Russia says 13,000 servicemen took part. Yet most of the Western experts insist that the maneuvers involved far more soldiers, with Germany’s Defense Ministry claiming that there were at least 100,000 of them. Meanwhile, the media report that Russia is now showing force in a different region – it is deploying a flotilla of warships, the largest since the beginning of the war in Syria, in the Mediterranean Sea along that country’s coast.

The Day requested some experts to comment on what this show of military force by Russia means.


Valentyn BADRAK, director, Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies:

“On the one hand, Russia in fact got ready for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine 1.5-2 years ago and is now focusing on improving its mobile capabilities and unit cohesion, as well as on maintaining the potential of intervention.

“On the other hand, Russia is taking a lot of measures (which may not be connected with the exercises because such things are planned well in advance) to tackle various problems in having a dialog with the Western world.

“We can see today that, firstly, there are grounds for the Kremlin and Putin to be dissatisfied because they feel the impact of anti-Russian sanctions. Technological potential is running out. This has been so obvious since the beginning of the current year that it left a very essential imprint on Russian arms development programs, including military-technical cooperation which is in fact arms business. Some countries, such as India, are overtly scrapping the already announced projects (e.g., about producing a military cargo aircraft) because Russia has no design-and-technology facilities for carrying out this kind of projects.

“In response to tensions, Russia uses ‘third countries,’ such as Syria and Ukraine. Our country serves as a laboratory for the Kremlin, which the latter turns to whenever problems with the West get aggravated.

“Putin must have thought that he managed to achieve a positive result by meeting Donald Trump. But he is now facing the consequences (I think irrespective of Trump’s potential sympathy) that emerged owing to a trouble-free US state machine. These very big problems have reached a deadlock, and the West is clearly unwilling to work out a compromise. US defense budget growth and additional sanctions are the signs of it. For this reason, these factors stimulate Putin to take such measures as aggravation of the situation in the Sea of Azov and holding these exercises.”

What does the participation of China in the Russian exercises mean? What is the interest of Moscow and Beijing?

“This is not the first time China participates in such exercises. A few years ago, paratroopers of both countries also took part in a large-scale exercise. Following this, the Chinese even announced a likely purchase of a big lot of IL76 planes. In other words, it is the continuation of a course.

“But in the current situation, Beijing and Moscow ended up ‘in the same boat’ because Washington labeled them as a menace – so it stands to reason for them to come together. China shows that it is receiving support from Putin, no matter how odious he is. But, on the other hand, it is very important because this may precede establishing a situational alliance. For Putin, any ally, particularly such a powerful one as China, is a lifesaver. Although it is not in fact isolated, it is aware of being rejected by the West.

“China used to do so in order to get Russian technologies, but this is no longer the point today. What comes first now is big politics, while Russia is no longer of interest to China in terms of technology after selling the maritime version of its newest air defense system. China already has a no less powerful technological potential than Russia has.”

How should Ukraine react to Russia’s actions?

“Ukraine is essentially lagging behind in the buildup of its defense capability. I will say even more: we, experts at the Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies, believe that less than a half of what could be done has in fact been done in the four and a half years of war, as far as buildup of defense capability is concerned. Well-known Western experts have already publicly discussed this sluggishness and, to some extent, mistakes of the leadership in building up the army and preparing for a positional warfare. So, I can affirm again that Ukraine needs to reach a strategic level of rearmament, essentially speed up the adoption of the missiles that were shown at the latest parade, and work more actively in the segments that could help form a professional army. There are no signs of this so far.”


Semen NOVOPRUDSKY, Russian journalist:

“I think the attempts to compare these exercises with those of 1981 are not accidental. In my view, Putin has long been thinking in the paradigm of a war with the West and hopes to win it, without being aware of whether this is realistic, of who will be defeated (for the West is not so far at war with Russia), and of the price Russia will have to pay for this victory. In my opinion, the West must be aware that Putin wants a war, thinks that it is already on, and is in fact pursuing a ‘wartime’ policy.”

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