Next Tuesday, September 11 will begin four days of military drills in Central and Eastern Russia, called Vostok-18. For the first time Russia Federation will cooperate on these exercises with China. As the Russian authorities declared: ”The drills are aimed at consolidating and developing the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, deepening pragmatic and friendly cooperation between the two armies, and further strengthening their ability to jointly deal with varied security threats…” and “the military exercises are not targeted at a third party”. Even considering this declaration, most of the international relations specialists agree to the theory that Russia is currently sending a clear message of operational readiness and capabilities to Europe and especially to NATO.
If we talked a lot about the forces involved in the Zapad-17 exercise during September 2017 as a display of strength, the greatness of Vostok is obviously shown by the number of military troops deployed between the 11th and the 15th of this month. It will be the biggest drills in Russian history. Vostok-18 exercise is expecting the participation of around 300,000 troops and China will take part up to 3,200 troops, 900 pieces of weaponry and 30 fixed-wings and helicopters. We can see a huge difference compared to last year when Russia cooperated with Belarus with 12,700 total troops. As stated by the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, this engagement will be higher than the largest number of troops involved since 1981 in the Zapad (West) exercise in USSR with 100,000 to 150,000 troops deployed.
This event echoes the fact that Russia and China are working on their relationship like in the upcoming Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, starting the same day as the military exercise. Some of the topics of exchange are focusing for example on Energy Cooperation in Northeast Asia or on Cross-Border Electronic Trade cooperation in digital dimensions.
Even if Russia and China are, for more than a decade now, close “partners in crime” on the international diplomatic stage, Russia has always been careful about the nonproliferation of its strategic capabilities even more with its closest partners. This integration of China in the Vostok joint exercise can attest the place taken by the country in the frame of strategic and strong Russian allies. This Russian position statement arrived simultaneously with a context of increase tensions between Europe and its close ally: the United States. After American declarations and as shown by President Macron’s speeches in the past months, France announced its wish to strengthen his diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation, after years of struggles .
Even if Vostok-18 is still a joint exercise aimed at improvement of cooperation and interoperability between its participants, it takes place in a current situation of diplomatic and security difficulties which could, according to international observers, crystallised a declared antagonism. The clear reaction of NATO and the United States supports this theory. In fact, “the idea of 36,000 pieces of military equipment moving together at the same time” and the potential underreporting of scale for Russian exercises led the head of NATO’s military committee affirm that Vostok-18 joint exercise could be considered as “a serious preparation for a big war”.
According to the current situation and following this huge “justified” exercise, as stated by Russia, it appears that the development of security cooperation and defence interoperability in Europe would be part of the present issues of the European military institution in September.