Russia is gearing up to hold the biggest round of war games in almost a half-century next week, and it has invited thousands of troops from China to join in.
Some 297,000 Russian soldiers — a number equal to half the entire population of Washington D.C. — will join 3,000 Chinese forces, along with up to 36,000 tanks and other types of military vehicles, 1,000 aircraft, and some 80 naval ships.
But really, no one should read anything into this, a top Russian commander told a briefing in Moscow on Thursday.
“There’s nothing special going on here,” said chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces Valery Gerasimov, adding that the occasional round of war games is simply good training. “There’s really no other subtext.”
But the message is pretty, pretty, pretty clear, longtime Russia-watchers told VICE News.
The massive exercise, dubbed Vostok 2018, is aimed at sending a message to the U.S. and Europe about Russia’s resurgent ambitions in world affairs, as well as signal Russia’s budding relationship with China, they said.
“These are the largest exercises since the end of the Cold War,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Russia and China both want to reduce American global leadership, and ultimately that’s what these exercises are about.”
The show of force comes as tensions have ratcheted up between Russia and the West in hotspots around the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent troops to prop up the embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in a deft strike using special forces in 2014. Last year, Russia staged its biggest war game since 2013 in a joint exercise with Belarus involving some 13,000 troops — although NATO estimates of the real troop count were higher.
“Russia and China both want to reduce American global leadership, and ultimately that’s what these exercises are about.”
This spring, Putin rolled out newfangled, allegedly unstoppable nuclear weapons to thunderous applause in front of a live audience in Moscow, including an animation of what appeared to be warheads raining down on Florida.
But the show of numbers masks a military weakness that Russia has long struggled to overcome, said Malcolm Nance, a longtime intelligence analyst.
“They both project that they are the two growing superpowers, and that the U.S. is a waning superpower,” Nance told VICE News. “But, in fact, Russia is pretty much a trailer park with atomic bombs.”
The U.S. would do well not to overreact, said Ambassador Daniel Fried, a retired State Department official and Russia expert.
“The Russians love saber-rattling,” Fried said. “I think the right answer to the Russians is to say, you can play the early 1980s if you want to, but as I recall, the 1980s ended badly for you. Do you really want another round?”
Cover image: The Chebarkul training center in Russia's Chelyabinsk Region. The final stage of the joint counterterrorism exercise Peace Mission 2018 involving member-states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Aleksandr Kondratuk / Sputnik via AP