Russia holds a major operational-strategic military exercise annually. And this year’s Vostok 2018 war game, which ran from September 11 to 17, received considerable foreign attention due both to its reported size, cast as the largest since Zapad 1981, and the inclusion of forces from China. Russia’s defense ministry consciously presented Vostok 2018 as both a show of its advances in recent years, while also vastly inflating the size of the exercise. In addition to the scale, however, the most interesting feature may have been the presence of troops and assets from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), thus making it a bilateral exercise—or trilateral, if the unreported numbers of forces from Mongolia are also included (see EDM, September 5, 11).
The level of attention and publicity generated by the defense leadership in Moscow concerning the historic size of the exercise seems to imply a deliberate effort to exaggerate its scale to offer a show of military power. This contrasts with the pattern of officially under-reporting the numbers of military personnel participating in the Zapad series of military exercises due to the need to try to show compliance with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document (2011). Officially, Russia sent 300,000 military personnel to Vostok 2018, with 3,200 from the PLA. Yet, reports on the number of Russian troops returning to their home bases after the exercise suggest that Vostok 2018 was actually significantly smaller (RIA Novosti, September 17).
Elements from a communications unit, reportedly involving 1,000 personnel, were deployed to an exercise training range in Trans-Baikal, 5,500 kilometers from their base in Samara. Another article notes that 2,000 personnel of the 2nd Combined Arms Army from Orenburg, in the Central Military District (MD), were relocated to an exercise training ground 5,000 km in Eastern MD. In other words, specific units were sent rather than whole divisions or entire brigades. However, these figures do not correspond to the official estimates provided by the defense ministry of the overall size of the forces deployed in the exercise. The explanation probably lies in counting the entire brigade or division figures from which either a regiment or battalion tactical group is drawn. Yet, even if entire divisions and brigades were sent to the exercise, the total of 300,000 would remain difficult to attain (RIA Novosti, Vk-smi.ru, September 17).
Vostok 2018 involved five combined-arms and four air-defense training ranges as well as naval maneuvers (RIA Novosti, Vk-smi.ru, September 17). While these were among some of the main military testing and training goals of the exercise, it is also the case that Vostok 2018 was calculated to send a “strategic message” to foreign powers. The Russian minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu, downplayed the idea that Vostok 2018 modeled an attack on any other country. Yet, the force elements and parts of the scenario imply operations against a foreign state actor (see EDM, September 13). Moreover, Moscow always casts its military exercises as “defensive,” even while actively training for counter-offensive operations (Vesti, September 16).
Logistically, the movement of forces across such large distances, mainly by rail, is impressive. The focus on strategic mobility is tied to the reform, in 2010, of the Materiel-Technical Support (Materialnotekhnicheskogo Obespechniia—MTO) to improve this vital aspect of combat service support. And since 2013, greater attention has been paid to enhancing the MTO through exercises and snap inspections. Although the Ministry of Defense and General Staff built these features into this year’s Vostok exercise, they also wanted this to be interpreted as one of the advances made by Russia’s Armed Forces in recent years (Tvzvezda.ru, September 17). In addition to testing and training the MTO in support of the strategic mobility dimension, the exercise had several objectives. These included checking the level of combat readiness among the forces deployed; improving command and control over groups of forces; ensuring coordination between the Ground Forces, the Military-Maritime Fleet (navy) and the Aerospace Forces; and rehearsing various tactical applications of force. Vostok 2018 also practiced the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and robotic technologies, and it drew on combat experience gained from Russian operations in Syria (Tvzvezda.ru, September 17). Shoigu stated that the results of the exercise will be discussed in October with the commander-in-chief, Vladimir Putin.
Another notable area of the exercise was the involvement of PLA forces. The Chinese sent 3,200 military personnel to the exercise. This could be interpreted as a low-key level of commitment to Vostok. Yet, the joint forces in Tsugol training ground, in the Eastern Military District, which included 25,000 Russian personnel, were rehearsing combined-arms operations against a hypothetical opponent. Reportedly, the joint interaction between military forces from Russia, China and Mongolia were tasked with stopping the offensive of a conventional enemy. This entailed a complex range of targets and allowed commanders to form a front 24 kilometers in length and 8 kilometers deep (Vpk-news.ru, September 18; (Krasnaya Zvezda, Izvestia, September 17).
At the same time, it is worth pointing out some conflicting signals regarding the participation of the PLA in this year’s Vostok war game. On the one hand, Shoigu stated that he wants these types of joint exercises to be more frequent. But on the other hand, he also said that an exercise on the scale of Vostok 2018 might only occur every five years. He provided no indication that such exercises with the PLA could become particularly frequent. However, when commenting on the exercise, President Putin said that it showed the willingness of partners to come to the aid of others if necessary, implying a belief that the PLA might join forces with Russia in future conflicts (Krasnaya Zvezda, Izvestia, September 17).
An element of show is always involved in military exercises. The hype and exaggeration of the recently concluded massive drills in the east—not least concerning the numbers of personnel—indicate that Moscow took seriously the task of showcasing its military power. Yet, rather than intended to intimidate its neighbors, Vostok 2018 was framed in part to test military advances, promote arms sales, and to impress the PLA. China’s involvement in a Russian strategic-level military exercise may have influenced the defense ministry’s media campaign to compare it with Zapad 1981. The inclusion of Chinese troops in Russian military exercises on this level will not go unnoticed. Though foreign governments will likely wait to see how Moscow and Beijing follow up their joint participation in Vostok 2018.