The massive strategic-operational war game Vostok 2018, held last September in the Russian Far East, officially involved up to 300,000 personnel and thousands of tanks and other heavy military equipment. Russian forces were joined by a mechanized brigade from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As Vostok 2018 reached its climax, President Vladimir Putin visited the Tsugol training range in the Trans-Baikal region to observe a grand fireworks display of military might, with a grand parade of troops as well as some 200 Russian and 50 Chinese tanks and other armor. Russian naval forces were deployed in the Pacific, the Arctic and the Sea of Okhotsk. In all, six field armies of the Russian Ground Forces (the 2nd, 5th, 29th, 35th, 36th and 41st) were involved in Vostok 2018. Moreover, the exercise featured two air armies (11th and 14th) of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS), the entire corps of Russia’s Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV), as well as the Military Transport Aviation Command. All this was vigorously reported and promoted by the state-run Russian media and the defense ministry top command. The public nature of the event allowed Putin to grandstand at Tsugol: “Russia is a peace-loving nation that is ready to defend its national interests and allies” (see EDM, September 11, 13, 19, October 3).
Vostok 2018 tested the ability of a substantially refurbished Russian military to mobilize large contingents of heavily-armed troops, to deploy them across long distances, as well as to maintain them on far-off battlefields while providing support from the air and sea. But a massive regional ground war in the Trans-Baikal region, on the Chinese border, seems rather unlikely for the time being. In European Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document imposes strict constraints on holding massive military exercises; whereas, Russia is not only free to deploy massive contingents in the Far East, but also to publicly brag about it to attendant foreign military attachés and journalists—not to mention potentially exaggerate the exact number of troops involved. This overt display of military might and the public demonstration of joint maneuvers with the PLA were useful for internal propaganda and as a form of strategic deterrence aimed at the West—in particular, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), seen in Moscow as the grand foe.
In turn, NATO countries have for the last several years been increasing defense spending. And this month (October), the Alliance kicked off its long-prepared massive multinational sea/air/land exercise Trident Juncture 2018, hosted by Norway and neighboring Scandinavian countries. The exercise will involve 45,000 personnel, 10,000 vehicles, 150 aircraft and some 60 ships. All NATO members are contributing, together with Finland and Sweden, two states that, though neutral, are apparently ready to assist NATO if Scandinavia or the Baltic States are attacked. Trident Juncture 2018 (like Vostok 2018) mostly focuses on mobilizing large contingents of heavily-armed troops, deploying them long distance, logistically maintaining them on far-off battlefields and providing air/sea support. The NATO exercise envisages an “enemy” invading from the north of Norway (from the Russian border), occupying land and pressing south to Oslo from the Trondheim area, where US Marines have established a small permanent base. Of course, as the exercise scenario unfolds, the “enemy” invaders will be curtailed. Some of the joint air action during Trident Juncture 2018 will happen over neutral Finland and Sweden (Kommersant, October 5).
The West apparently sees the Baltic-Nordic region, where Russian and NATO forces are in direct contact, as the most dangerous spot on the globe; but Moscow may think differently. As Vostok 2018 ended, another massive war game commenced in the Southern Military District (SMO), in the North Caucasus, together with synchronized exercises in Crimea and southern Russia. Unlike Vostok, there was no fanfare or much media coverage—also, no foreign observers or prior notice given to the OSCE. The SMO press service did not provide a name for the war game, and the number of participants was put officially at “some 7,000,” with 2,500 pieces of heavy equipment, warships and warplanes. Of course, the awkward 7,000 troop figure was conjured up to fit the Vienna Document limits, legally allowing Moscow to avoid inviting observers. Yet, it was officially announced that these secretive war games “were the biggest in 30 years in the North Caucasus” and were directly commanded by SMO commander Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, a Hero of Russia, awarded for commanding the Russian military force in Syria (Militarynews.ru, October 8).
In September 2016, the battle-readiness of the SMO in the same region—the strategic Yugo-Zapadnoye Napravleniye—was tested in the massive Kavkaz 2016 strategic military exercises, with some 220,000 soldiers and civilian defense ministry contractors taking part (Interfax, September 19, 2016). If the present war games are touted as “the biggest,” tens, if not hundreds of thousands of men could have been involved. Three field armies (58th, 8th and 49th) and the 4th air army, the Black Sea Fleet, its Marines and armored corps in Crimea, the Caspian Flotilla, and many other separate and special units reportedly took part. The war game involved joint air/naval action to take control of the Black Sea, while the field armies encountered each other, performing “offensive and defensive” simulated operations (Militarynews.ru, October 1).
Meanwhile, the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation also looks to be growing worse (see EDM, October 16, 17). The recent massive war games in the SMO may be a preparation to face any possible negative developments in the Yugo-Zapadnoye Napravleniye—such as the Donbas conflict potentially escalating into a regional war, or NATO intervening to dominate the Black Sea and block the Bosporus. As the SMO exercises concluded, Russia’s nuclear strategic forces went into action, simulating an escalation of a regional conflict into nuclear war. Strategic bombers launched long-range cruise missiles, as nuclear submarines fired ballistic missiles. Additionally, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) were test-launched. Russia’s early-warning system was enacted to track the test launches (Militarynews.ru, October 11). The Ministry of Emergency Situations, in turn, was tasked with running a country-wide exercise on how to deal with Russia being “suddenly attacked by an aggressor.” The Ministry had to prepare civil defenses to keep the country running as well as evacuate the population (Militarynews.ru, October 1). With that, however, the war game season came to a close in Russia, reducing the likelihood that the new cold war with the West will grow hot, at least until the year’s end.