Is Putin bluffing or should we be worried?
According to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, this latest exercise will engage some 300,000 Russian troops, over 1,000 aircraft, the Pacific and Northern Fleets, the entire Airborne forces, including 30 aircraft and fixed-wing helicopters, and Mongolian and Chinese troops.
These forces will allegedly exercise in something approaching real combat conditions. Observers have naturally focused on the exercise’s size and scope, and on China’s participation, but there are also other dimensions.
Clearly Russia is rehearsing a large-scale war. But since Russia is not demobilising in the West against NATO and Ukraine, Vostok-2018 will likely stress and thus test Russia’s steadily developing capability for mobilising the entire panoply of reservists and multiple militaries at its disposal, along with the civil administration.
Furthermore, since all exercises invariably parallel or contain sizable nuclear exercises, and Russia’s two nuclear fleets are participating, this represents another example of rehearsing conditions for nuclear operations.
A global war likely includes nukes
By virtue of being in Asia, Russia can minimise the need to alert Western observers as to what is happening and circumvent existing treaties. Therefore, there is every reason to believe, along with Russian military correspondent Pavel Felgenhauer, that Moscow is rehearsing a global war scenario along with other smaller ones that may build into that.
Such a scenario likely includes nuclear weapon use, and substantial civilian and military mobilisation targeted against NATO.
The use of airborne forces also suggests that the initial period of the war will feature airborne invasions, something Ukraine must take note of as airborne operations are a long-standing Soviet calling card.
Including Chinese forces means more than signalling a lack of hostile intent or suspicion about Chinese capabilities and objectives, as occurred in Vostok-2010.
In conjunction with the growing identity of their foreign policies and impending deliveries of Russia’s SU-35 fighter, China’s presence here tends to confirm Russian analyst Vasily Kashin’s remarks that this exercise points to an open declaration of a Russo-Chinese military alliance.
Moscow has previously sought such an alliance and it need not be a formal document such as NATO’s Washington Treaty to meet Russo-Chinese requirements for an alliance.
Tokyo has nothing to show for its efforts
These issues comprise most of the assessments voiced by Western observers so far about this exercise. But there are two other significant conclusions to be drawn from Vostok-2018.
First, in Asia, Japan’s quest for a rapprochement with Russia — based on the presumption that there is daylight between Russia and China, which Japan can enlarge and exploit for its benefit — has once again been dashed.
Despite six years of assiduous Japanese pursuit of Russia, Tokyo still has nothing to show for its efforts. Moreover, this exercise graphically and decisively demonstrates the growing intimacy between Moscow and Beijing.
Vostok-2018 suggests that Tokyo must rethink its government’s entire Russian policy that increasingly appears to have been based on wishful thinking and illusions.
And beyond Japan, all of Asia has to take this likely alliance into consideration as a factor in their (and possibly Australia’s) defence planning.
Naval deployments a result of typical paranoia
The second significant conclusion to be drawn from Vostok-2018 is actually occurring in the Mediterranean off Syria.
Moscow has trumped up a theory that the West is preparing to launch its own chemical strike in Syria, attribute it to the Assad regime, and then use that pretext to strike at that regime.
Based on this combination of typical paranoia and mendacity Russia has deployed ships from the Northern Fleet, Black Sea Fleet and Mediterranean Eskadra (Squadron) off Syria, including the deployment of nuclear-capable Kalibr missiles, supposedly to deter NATO and prepare for the Russo-Syrian attack on Idlib, the Syrian rebels’ last holdout.
Instead, it is more likely that this exercise is part of Vostok-2018 because it is quite impractical to move those fleets to the Far East.
Moscow may be planning another Ukraine operation
Moscow has exercised its capability for a surge deployment to deter NATO, threaten nuclear use, and push it back from the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. This could also be in preparation for another operation against Ukraine.
Given Moscow’s blockade of the Sea of Azov and Ukrainian shipping there, Ukraine’s counter-moves in the Black Sea, and the continuing training and deployment of weapons and forces by Russia to this area, another invasion of Ukraine with a strong deterrent aimed at NATO cannot be excluded.
This bizarre theory about chemical weapons therefore probably is a smokescreen to conceal another part of Vostok-2018, namely a surge of the nuclear capable fleet into the Mediterranean to deter NATO from resisting an attack on Ukraine and threatening nuclear use.
This would conform to the apprehensions that Vostok-2018 is a rehearsal for a large, even global war. And it would also show Moscow the extent of its capabilities to mobilise simultaneously and rapidly over great distances large combined forces, and even possibly joint forces with China.
In this case, then Vostok-2018 is even larger than believed and even more significant than thought.
For Western defence planners this amounts to an unmistakable example of early warning, and must be assessed in that context.
Dr Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
This article was originally published on the Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.