Vostok-18 (September 11-15, 2018) is the largest military exercise hosted by Moscow since the 1980s. It involves a massive 300,000 troops and 1,000 aircraft joined by 3,200 soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) armed with 900 military equipment and 30 helicopters. The decade of the 1980s was arguably one of the high points of the Cold War when America was recovering from a devastating defeat in the Vietnam War a decade earlier in the 1970s. Seemingly at its peak and the top of the geopolitical game, Brezhnev’s confident Soviet Union was contrasted with an introspective US.
But in 1979, the Soviet Union had itself walked unknowingly into its version of the Vietnam War with its invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan War nearly resulted in bankrupting the Soviet Union and saw Afghan tribesmen armed with primitive weapons (and some modern ones like Stinger missiles supplied by the Americans) fighting and winning against a major superpower. By the end of the 1980s, the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, had led the country on unsuccessful economic and political reforms before the Soviet empire finally collapsed in 1992.
Therefore, it appears the Russians are turning back the clock to reflect the tensions in the 1980s onto the present. In both cases, the world underwent a geopolitical shift. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the New World Order, a doctrine popularized by US President George H. W. Bush. The contemporary situation also reflects shifting geopolitical order with the rise of India and China and populist movements in the West. In both decades, a show of military strength is a way to reassure the public that the authorities are on top of security concerns and are perfectly capable of defending themselves.
The Russian word “Vostok” means “East” in Russian and some are already comparing Vostok-18 with Zapad-81, the massive Cold War-era military exercise in the Soviet Union. Some wonder if Vostok is referring to Moscow’s turn to East Asia (namely China) for military partnership, alignment or some may even dare say alliance. The Western media has interpreted the massive exercise as a message of solidarity that Moscow and Beijing are sending to the Western alliance. It is a signal of their determination to push back the Western presence in strategic military and security arenas.
The deeply realist narrative sees this as Moscow signaling its perception that a new Cold War is brewing. As Russia fends off color revolutions in its backyard, Western sanctions, and a much weaker global presence compared to its Cold War days, Moscow is also keen to maintain its sphere of influence in Syria where it has military bases and assets that protect the Assad government against Western-supported rebel forces. Vostok may be a reminder to the West that Russia will not give up its spheres of influence without a fight.
Vostok-18 follows the highly-publicized Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) anti-terror military exercise in Chelyabinsk Oblast where Chinese military presence was also conspicuous. Vostok-18 exercise takes place as Beijing faces Western pushback of Chinese influence as well. On the economic front, Beijing is facing a massive trade conflict (some go as far as calling it a “war”) that has now resulted in trade tariffs on USD 200 billion worth of Chinese products exported to the US. Others are afraid of the ultimate threat of increasing the trade tariffs to US$500 billion, covering literally every Chinese product that is exported to the US. China’s 5G Huawei telecommunications equipment are banned from Australia and the US. Australia and the UK have sent their warships into the South China Sea to support US-led Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). Even non-Western countries like Malaysia have cancelled Chinese projects like the East Coast Railway Line (ECRL). All of them are potential challenges for Chinese economic and geopolitical diplomacy.
Ultimately, if the exercises are designed in the interest of peace, the exercise in and of itself is not a threat to regional or global peace and security. Exercises can help in confidence building measures as Beijing’s military exercises with ASEAN show.
A caveat is needed here. While Chinese and Russian forces are intensifying their military exchanges, they are a long way off from inter-operability standards in military forces found in NATO, the US-Japan alliance, and other US alliances. In other words, Chinese and Russian forces are at best an alignment of mutual national interests. This is partly due to China’s rejection of forging alliances with other countries. It only has a paper alliance with North Korea and an “ironclad brotherhood” relationship with Pakistan, but no formal alliances like those found in the West. Beijing and Moscow also have their own traditional mutual suspicions that may prevent them from forming a tight alliance.
Even the Russians do not want to carry things too far by adopting an anti-Western theme. The very fact that the massive exercise is in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East instead of its European-facing Western regions is giving due sensitivity to European concerns about having such intimidating exercises on their borders with Russia. Russia has of late mended its relationship with US President Donald J. Trump who supports Russia re-joining the G8, something his Western European colleagues disagree with. Russia has also reached out to countries like Turkey, reversing animosities in the recent past over the shooting down of a Russian jet fighter in Syria by mistake. Turkey has since apologized for the incident. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself is facing flak from the West for adopting authoritarian ways to rule Turkey after a failed coup against him. There is incentive for Turkey to use Russian friendship to hedge against pro-democracy pressure groups in Western Europe.
The Chinese are keen to further enhance their relations with Russia by agreeing to include the Polar Silk Road to the existing overland and maritime routes in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is complementarity here with Russian interests in garnering Chinese support for the icy northern corridor where climate change is melting the ice and opening passages for ships to pass through. Beijing has the financial capabilities to fund technologies usable to exploit this corridor. China is also grateful to Russian support for its overland BRI route, a large part of which passes through the former Soviet sphere of influence and which is now Russia’s backyard. While Russia is an old hand in projecting its power overseas, Beijing is new to this game, having adopted Deng Xiaoping’s taoguang yanghui (biding time, building strength) diplomatic philosophy in the past. The exercise is therefore a major opportunity for China to showcase its military capabilities as it seeks a larger footprint overseas with military bases in Djibouti and Eastern Afghanistan.
Thousands of Chinese troops will descend in Vladivostok, along with their equipment like advanced jet fighters. Some see such massive deployments as a propaganda campaign. In the realist interpretation, the symbolic nature of the exercise is emphasized. First, it warns the West which currently still has superiority in firepower and technological strength that China and Russia are capable of standing on their own when defending their national interests. Second, their strengthened friendship is also targeted at the middle powers and the small states as a show of strength in the region. Third, the display of weapon systems helps in marketing efforts to interested buyers and also provides a space for scenario-testing of these weapons under different conditions.
Ultimately, if the exercises are designed in the interest of peace, the exercise in and of itself is not a threat to regional or global peace and security. Exercises can help in confidence building measures as Beijing’s military exercises with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) show. Russia and China are both major stakeholders in regional peace, and if working with each other in this massive exercise already indicates a high level of comfort, perhaps it is time to reach out to the Western alliance for more confidence building measures in the near future. This is perhaps a constructivist, functionalist and even idealist perspective in international relations.