Tue, 23 Apr 2019

Russia has begun massive military exercises across its central and eastern regions, starting weeklong war games the Defense Ministry says will involve some 300,000 personnel -- twice as many as the biggest Soviet maneuvers of the Cold War era.

The September 11-17 exercises, called Vostok-2018 (East-2018) and billed by Moscow as its biggest in decades -- or in history -- come amid persistently high tension between Moscow and the West and are being closely watched by NATO.

The war games demonstrate 'Russia's focus on exercising large-scale conflict,' NATO spokesman Dylan White said in late August, stating that the Western alliance had been briefed about Vostk-2018 and would monitor it.

'It fits into a pattern we have seen over some time -- a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defense budget and its military presence,' White said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the opening day of a September 11-13 economic forum in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, is expected to observe the exercises briefly during his trip.

Chinese and Mongolian troops are taking part, amid ongoing Kremlin efforts to pursue closer ties with Beijing and other Asian capitals.

SEE ALSO: Russia's Claims Of 'Biggest-Ever' War Games Seen As Sending A Message To The West

'We have a trusting relationship [with China] in the spheres of politics, security, and defense,' Putin said at the start of his meeting with Xi.

Up to 3,500 Chinese military personnel will take part in the 'main scenario' of the drills at the Tsugol proving ground, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on September 4.

Alex Kokcharov, a Russia analyst at the London-based risk assessment firm HIS Markit, said that China has never before participated in war games on Russian soil that were not under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

'Fundamentally, the goal of this specific exercise is to project Russian military power in the Asia-Pacific region,' Kokcharov said. 'If Russia had not invited China, that would have been viewed by Beijing as a potentially dangerous activity by Russia.'

Up In Arms: Russia's Massive Vostok-2018 War Games

Russian officials have said that the war games are not meant as a threat to any particular country but are justified by what Putin's spokesman described on August 28 as a hostile international environment.

Russia's 'ability to defend itself in the current international situation, which is often aggressive and unfriendly to our country, is justified, essential, and without alternative,' Peskov said.

Relations between Russia and the West have been severely strained by Moscow's actions in Ukraine and Syria and its alleged interference in elections in the United States and European countries.

Shoigu said on September 4 that about 300,000 military personnel would take part, twice as many as the largest war games conducted by the Soviet Union: the Zapad-81 exercises in 1981.

'In some ways (Vostok-2018) will repeat aspects of Zapad-81, but in other ways the scale will be bigger,' Shoigu said.

He said it would involve more than 1,000 warplanes, helicopters, and drones; up to 80 combat and logistics ships; and up to 36,000 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other vehicles.

'Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles -- and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible,' Shoigu said.

The drills are being held in Russia's Eastern and Central military districts, which encompass more than half of the country's territory.

Moscow has increased the number of its large-scale military exercises in the Caucasus, the Baltic and the Arctic in recent years.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, RIA, and TASS

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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