From July 18 to 24, Russia is holding large-scale military maneuvers aimed at countering potential terrorist attacks in its Far East region. However, since terrorists have not yet really targeted Russia’s Far East, the drill is understood to have other purposes as well.
The drill, code named “Vostok 2005,” aims at preparing for “the fight against international terrorism in all its aspects,” according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The military exercise is designed to boost security in order to confront “separatists, radical religious-nationalist movements, and international radical groups,” according to a Ministry statement. Furthermore, the maneuvers aim at training “practical measures to forestall attempts to undermine Russian territorial integrity.”
The official Ministry of Defense statement fails to reveal what group might try to undermine Russian territorial integrity in the Far East or how they would accomplish this goal. However, the drill involves significant numbers of troops: more than 5,000 personnel from the land forces, air force, railway, and Interior Ministry.
The war games appear to indicate that Russian military planners still emphasize conventional, large-scale warfare. Troops of the 5th Army, based in Ussuriisk, Primorie region, and the 35th Army, based in Belogorsk, Amur region, as well as the 83rd paratrooper brigade, the 14th spetsnaz special brigade, and the 55th marine brigade from Vladivostok are participating, according to Russian media reports. The drill also involves five Su-24 jet fighters of the 11th air force army, as well as two Su-25.
The first Far Eastern war games were held in 2002. Two years later, in June 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Pacific Fleet’s Rybachy submarine base (Kamchatka oblast) to observe the “Mobility 2004” exercises. Putin’s presence at the drill indicated the Kremlin’s concern with Far Eastern security issues.
The 2005 drill, held under the command of General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, and General Vladimir Bulgakov, deputy commander of the Russian land forces, is divided in two stages. The first stage, July 18-21, involves anti-terrorist operations, while the second stage, July 21-24, is devoted to training troops to repel outside intervention.
However, many Russian media outlets were not really impressed by the war games and did not accept the official “anti-terrorist” rationale for the drill. Only Trud (July 18) described the drill as major maneuvers of strategic importance. Other publications sounded somewhat critical.
The location of the anti-terrorism drill sparked confusion, as the Russian Far East faces more pressing challenges and threats than terrorism, Strana.ru commented on July 19. Drills like “Vostok 2005” may possibly boost Russian military clout in the region, but they are unlikely to solve other problems, such as security on the Korean peninsula and the long-standing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, Strana.ru said.
The 11th air force army would be taught to combat bandits, Lenta.ru ironically commented on July 18. Kommersant speculated that some of “Vostok 2005” troops could take part in joint exercises with China next month (Kommersant, July 19).
However, the military officially confirmed a Chinese connection with the “Vostok 2005” drill. According to General Baluyevsky, the drill aims at improving coordination between troops of the Far Eastern military district and forces of the Pacific Fleet. In a report released by the Far Eastern military district press office on July 19, Baluyevsky is quoted as saying, “I have a number of strategic issues to explore during the maneuvers.” Furthermore, “special attention” would be given to preparations for joint maneuvers with China in mid-August,” he said.
Russia is scheduled to hold unprecedented joint war-games with China on August 12-26, 2005. The exercise was first mentioned in a memorandum of understanding between the Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in July 2004. China and Russia first revealed plans for joint military exercises in December 2004, when Ivanov visited China. The war games are expected to involve Russia’s strategic Tu-95MS bombers firing cruise missiles, presumably to drill on how to overcome missile defense systems.
Defense ministers from other Shanghai Cooperation Organization member-states, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, are due to observe the August drill. Strana.ru said that the drill coincided with speculation that Beijing could hope to set up a military base in Kyrgyzstan, which would be the first People’s Liberation Army facility outside China.
However, Russian strategists have a number of Far Eastern issues to explore. For example, some time ago Russian media were prone to speculate about possible Russian military involvement in Korea. “Russia’s best response to a possible nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be a preemptive missile strike against North Korean nuclear facilities, carried out by the Russian Pacific Fleet,” the country’s leading daily, Izvestiya, claimed two years ago. The daily also quoted anonymous Pacific Fleet sources as saying that Russia’s Varyag cruiser would be able to use its cruise missiles and destroy North Korean launch facilities.
Yet apart from Izvestiya’s odd leak, the Kremlin has repeatedly offered to mediate in the Korean stand off. President Putin has repeatedly argued that Pyongyang is unlikely to draft any aggressive plans and also urged to provide North Korea with guarantees of non-aggression.
Thus the Russian war games may not involve training for preemptive strikes against North Korea. However, “Vostok 2005” appears to indicate Moscow’s growing interest in Far Eastern security, which is not surprising on the eve of unprecedented joint war games with China next month.