How many countries these days have 1000 armoured vehicles to put into a single exercise? Russia does, and it has. President Vladimir Putin ordered a surprise exercise in the Eastern Military District, commencing on the 13th and running until the 20th. This is an all-arms exercise on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving the Russian Pacific Fleet, the Air Force and the Army, all on a massive scale. Sources quote upwards of 100,000 personnel, 500-1000 tanks and armoured vehicles and 130 aircraft.
Naval components of the exercise include mine-hunting and anti-submarine warfare drills directed against conventionally-powered submarines, while the air force is flying top cover to maritime operations. The land component is primarily important as a mobilisation and logistical exercise. The big question which intelligence agencies will be examining is how the forces are being deployed.
Historically, the main purpose of Siberia-based land forces was to keep China in check following the Sino-Soviet split. Whereas Soviet military doctrine in the West strictly adhered to the principles of a strategic offensive, a different approach was taken with China, relying on layered defences and fortified areas.
The question now is what the present tactics and deployments of ground forces will indicate. Will there be a southern or an eastward orientation? Will the tactics me based upon manoeuvre warfare or defence-in-depth? As there is reportedly an aggressor training component to this exercise, nations interested in answering those questions will have ample opportunity to do so.
Why this exercise? Why now, and why in the east? Logical answers may be few and far between. As with any military involvement, this sort of sabre rattling buys Putin a certain amount of political capital and is a convenient distraction from domestic political problems, of which he has more than enough. Geostrategically, the exercise is somewhat puzzling.
While Russia has historically harboured suspicions of Chinese strategic intentions, that relationship is now quite friendly, and the thought of hostilities between the two de facto allies seems absurd. But who else is there? Russia’s dispute with Japan over the Kuril islands has not impaired friendly relations. Likewise, Russia does not need to care about North Korea. The Russian Pacific Fleet is far removed from the disputes of the South and East China Seas, and from the trade route choke point of the Malacca Strait. In short, this is the exercise of a useless muscle.
Still, it is less useless than Russia’s forces in the west, which guard against the evil Western imperialists- and could probably stroll right through to the Bay of Biscay at this point if they really wanted to, given the state of European land forces and Russia’s vast armoured superiority. If Moscow wants to call attention to its military strength and geopolitical importance with a large exercise, the East is certainly the less silly option.
This could also be a reaction to the US “eastward pivot,” reminding everyone that Russia too has a Pacific Fleet and providing China with some semblance of the multipolarity it prefers. Considering that Russia and China have just concluded joint naval exercises, however, the timing seems odd.
Of course, ego is the go-to explanation for all Russian military behaviour. “We will show our vast military power so that everyone knows how important we are! And of course, we must be on guard in case the evil (insert name of country or alliance) try to invade our vast, cold, inhospitable territory that no one actually wants. What, we don’t have any enemies left? Well then make one, do I have to think of everything?”