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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 40 New Delhi September 22, 2018

Russia’s ’Vostok 2018’ Military Exercises ’ Putin’s Show Of Strength?

Tuesday 25 September 2018

by R.G. Gidadhubli

On August 28, 2018 the Russian Government announced that the ’Vostok-2018’ (East-2018) military exercises will be carried out from September 11 to 15, 2018. These exercises will be held in Russia’s Central and Eastern Military districts, in southern Siberia, and the Far East. In fact this will be a major military drill to take place in Russia since 1981. This was corrobo-rated by Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu who declared that this would be the biggest military exercises in almost 40 years. In fact he was referring to the military exercises that year (1981), which involved the Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces and were the largest war drills ever carried out by the Soviet Union and its allies. In justification of his statement Sergei Shoigu mentioned that ’Vostok 2018’ will involve almost 300,000 troops, more than 1000 aircraft, both the Pacific and Northern Fleets, and all Russian airborne units. More important is that ’Vostok -2018’ has great geo-political and geo-strategic significance in view of the fact that there will participation of Chinese and Mongolian military personnel.

Hence several questions arise as to what are the objectives for carrying out this exercise, what is the cost for the country, whether this is a show of strength for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and so on. Perhaps from Russia’s national interest there is a need for this military exercise. Firstly, although there is no super-power rivalry between Russia and the West in contrast to what prevailed during the Soviet era, as expressed by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, such war games are ’essential’ in the current international situation which, he opined, was ’often aggressive and unfriendly toward our country.’

Secondly, in recent years, Russia’s military has stepped up the frequency and scope of its military exercises, reflecting the Kremlin’s multiple focus on modernising its armed forces and its tactics. This is evident from the fact that Russia last held large-scale war games in September 2017 known as ’Zapad 2017’ (West 2017), jointly with Belarus in regions bordering NATO countries in the Baltics.

Thirdly, it is a matter of significance that this is not a secret event. In fact NATO spokesman Dylan White confirmed that Russia had briefed the alliance, which planned to monitor them. At the same time he is candid in stating: " ’Vostok-2018’ demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict. It fits into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence." In fact both Russia and the NATO members have conducted a flurry of military drills near Russia’s borders during the last few years. Hence Russia insists that it will be responding to a growing NATO threat.

Fourthly, the timing is important since relations between Moscow and the West have deteriorated to a post-Cold War low. From the Western perspective, tensions have increased due to Russia’s alleged annexation of Crimea in 2014, its role in wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine, and its alleged election meddling in the United States in 2016 and in Europe.

Fifthly, there is an ongoing conflicting situation that prevails in Syria during the last few years where Russia supports the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, while the USA and West support his Opposition parties. Hence possibly to consolidate its position, as per reports, Russia decided to undertake a major naval exercise from September 1 to 8 in the Mediterranean Sea which might further aggra-vate tensions between Moscow and the West over the Syrian issue. As reported by the Russian Defence Ministry, this involved 25 warships, including a missile cruiser, and 30 aircraft. The objective of Syrian President Assad, who is confident of strong support of Russia, seems to prepare a major assault to regain control of the Idlib Province, a hotbed of terrorists, the last major stronghold of the Syrian Sunni rebels.

In fact Assad has reason to be comfortable since the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was candid in stating on August 30 that the difficult situation in Syria justified the planned Russian naval drills in the Mediterranean. But as expected, the United States, Britain, and France have repeated their warning to Assad. In fact anticipating likely conflict in the region, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warned on August 29, 2018 "about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a full-scale military operation" in Idlib.

Lastly, during two decades of his leadership of Russia, Vladimir Putin has focused on the defence sector and its modernisation, a major centre-piece of his administration. When Putin got elected for the fourth term as the President in May 2018, some analysts opined that he would bring about changes in how Russia’s defence-industrial sector is managed. This has become evident from Putin’s decision of replacing officials in the Defence Ministry and sacking several Generals during the last several months. He is aware of the rampant corruption that has been one of the major problems facing the economy and defence sector.

It is highly commendable that notwithstanding bilateral differences as mentioned above, there is cooperation between Russia’s Roskosmos and America’s NASA in conducting experiments in space research. At present a six-member crew, four from the USA and two from Russia, are in the International Space Station, and they will complete the exercise and return to earth in December 2018.

In conducting the ’Vostok-2018’ military exercise, the objective of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is to show-case that Russia has retained its strong military power. This is evident from the fact that while addressing Russia’s Defence Chiefs a few months back, Putin reiterated that Russia’s military can overpower any potential foe. Putin perhaps indicated that it (the military) will continue to get priority in terms of state expenditure.

But at the same time the reality is quite complex and far from satisfactory. It also raises questions as to the timing and relevance of this military exercise. As opined by experts in the Stockholm International Research Institute (SIPRI) in May 2018, the Russian defence sector has been facing problems of credit crunch, lagging technology, piled up defence projects and so on. The Russian economic condition is in a bad shape due to multiple factors such as low economic growth, economic sanctions by the USA and Western countries on Russia for its alleged annexation of Crimea, its role in wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine, and its alleged meddling in the United States election and Europe. This is further evident from the inability of the Russian Government to pay dues on time for workers of the FIFA World Cup, massive agitation by pensioners for raising the pension- age, poor healthcare system and so on. But perhaps these issues are of secondary relevance for asserting Russia’s global status.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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