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Putin's war games send signal to West, but Russia-China alliance unlikely

Why We Wrote This

Ties between Moscow and Beijing have weighed heavily on Washington for decades, especially when relations between the US and Russia and China have chilled. We're in such a chill again today.

Sergei Grits/AP
Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian national flags catch the wind during a military exercise about 160 miles southeast of the city of Chita during the Vostok 2018 joint military exercises in Eastern Siberia, Russia, Sept. 13.

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On paper at least, the joint Sino-Russian Vostok 2018 war games now under way look impressive. Though they fit into Russia's regular schedule of annual military drills, nothing on this scale has been attempted since Soviet times. Moscow claims that 300,000 troops will take part, along with 36,000 military vehicles. That's bigger than the armed forces of most countries in the world. The exercises have led some Russian commentators to suggest hopefully that Russia and China might be edging toward a full-blown military alliance. But analysts warn that talk of a military alliance between Russia and China is very premature at best. “Nobody actually conducts military exercises of this sort anymore. They are a cold war vestige,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. “But the idea of Russian military resurgence is the only card Putin has to play in his confrontation with the West.” More fundamentally, experts add, neither Russia nor China has any interest in creating a formal military alliance with the reciprocal obligations that would entail. Both have repeatedly rejected the idea and insisted that the present relationship – which they describe as a “strategic partnership” – is quite enough.

They are the most massive war games in Russia since the height of the cold war. And the Vostok 2018 exercises, now underway in Russia's Far East, demonstrate an unprecedented level of Sino-Russian geopolitical unity.

The exercises, kicked off this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a summit in Vladivostok, have led some Russian commentators to suggest hopefully – echoed, fearfully, by some in the West – that the two giants might be edging toward a full-blown military alliance. The war games include Chinese troops working with Russians, and a small contingent of Mongolians, in a multi-nation war scenario.

“The message here is clearly directed at Washington. US policies, such as trade war, have encouraged China to seek closer cooperation with Russia,” says Sergei Lukonin, a Far East expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “As for Russia, if it were not for the collective pressures like sanctions from the West – the US in the first place – things might have developed very differently. But with all these pressures on both countries, the idea of growing strategic cooperation with China has become rather popular.”

But others say that the exercises are less portentous than they appear – and not as large as they have been described. While Sino-Russian cooperation is increasing, they say that a formal alliance is not in the cards. The games are rather a calculated message to warn the United States away from the East Asian region.

On paper at least, the joint war games now under way look impressive. Though they fit into Russia's regular schedule of annual military drills, nothing on this scale has been attempted since Soviet times. Moscow claims that 300,000 troops will take part, along with 36,000 military vehicles including more than 1,000 tanks, about 1,000 aircraft, and 80 warships. That's bigger than the armed forces of most countries in the world.

And although Russian and Chinese forces have exercised before in multi-national drills, mostly under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the inclusion of 3,200 Chinese troops, along with 30 aircraft, into the scope of regular Russian-run maneuvers is something quite new.

Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as they watch the Vostok 2018 war games in Zabaikalsky region, Russia, on Sept. 13.

“The participation of Chinese forces alongside Russian ones is a clear signal to the would-be hegemon that it will not split our two countries, pit us one against the other, in this region,” says Viktor Litovkin, military editor for the state ITAR-Tass news agency. “We may not be allies, but this kind of cooperation is developing very fast.”

The new level of military coordination is mirrored by robust economic developments between the two countries. Bilateral trade and Chinese investment in Russia are both growing at a rapid clip. Russia is already China's largest oil supplier, and is set to become its biggest source of natural gas when the new 2,000-mile Power of Siberia pipeline into the Chinese industrial heartland is completed next year. As China seeks to evade US tariffs on agricultural goods, it is eying the Russian Far East's vast tracts of under-utilized farmland and already making a few long-term leasing arrangements.

But analysts warn that talk of military alliance between Russia and China is very premature, at best.

“Nobody actually conducts military exercises of this sort anymore. They are a cold war vestige,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. “But the idea of Russian military resurgence is the only card Putin has to play in his confrontation with the West. So our generals are doing their best to provide this card, to show that we can conduct such war games on that huge old cold war level.”

However impressive the Vostok 2018 drills may look on TV, they likely contain a strong element of fiction, Mr. Golts and other experts say.

“For one thing, they say 300,000 military personnel are involved, but that exceeds the total number of Russian ground troops, which is about 280,000,” says Golts. “The number of vehicles and tanks said to be taking part is very hard to believe. There certainly aren't that many armored vehicles in Siberia and the Far East, and if they brought them in from the west, it would have tied up the single rail line to the Far East for weeks. It would also have denuded our defenses in the west. When you count up everything, there is no way it adds up to what they are claiming.”

A few Western observers have pointed out that Russia is probably exaggerating its military might for political effect, but for the most part official US and NATO spokespeople seem content to go along with it.

“It's a very well-known and time-honored game, in which hardliners on both sides use the propaganda stereotypes of their opponents to fuel their own narratives,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant. “Why would anybody from NATO want to argue that the Russians aren't as big a threat as they claim to be?”

More fundamentally, experts add, neither Russia nor China has any interest in creating a formal military alliance, with the reciprocal obligations that would entail. Both have repeatedly rejected the idea, and insisted that the present relationship – which they describe as a “strategic partnership” – is quite enough.

Sergei Uyanaev, deputy director of the official Institute of Far East Studies in Moscow, says that China would have no interest at all in getting dragged into Russia's European confrontation with NATO, or its antagonisms with the West over Ukraine. For its part, Russia may offer rhetorical support, but wants no part of China's conflict with the US and regional countries over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Both sides want to maintain an independent foreign policy, and not to take on any more responsibilities than they need,” says Mr. Uyanaev. “At the same time, both feel pressured by the US, and this is driving them together. These military exercises are a carefully staged message, primarily to the US, but they are probably not a sign of bigger things to come.”

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