The Vostok 2018 Exercises and Their Strategic Significance

“The Russian-Chinese message to NATO is clear: Russia is not at all isolated and can perform effective operations on both the Eastern and Western fronts, with absolute efficiency and rapidity.” Analysis by Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori

From the Vostok 2018 exercises (Photo: AP)

The Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian Vostok 2018 exercises have been particularly important from both a military and tactical viewpoint and due to their geopolitical significance.

Vostok 2018 (a Russian term generally translated as "East") is an operation reaffirming the new strategic unity between Russia and China. Hence, it conveys a very clear message to the West that it would be good for the Atlantic Alliance not to disregard or neglect.

The message is the following: if NATO wants to attack them or, in any case, enter the areas of Russian-Chinese interest in the Heartland, the response of the Sino-Slavic axis will be very harsh, to the point of raising the threshold of a possible Western attack to an intolerable level. Hence, the unavoidable response from the "East" will be unbearable at technical, financial, and political levels for the attacker alone.

With this really impressive operation – although the number of the forces on the field has not yet been fully defined ex post – Russia certainly wants to demonstrate that the United States cannot attack without expecting severe responses from the Russian Federation, probably capable of blocking the US itself – considering that, in this case, there would be an immediate reunification with the Chinese forces, with the Mongolian Armed Forces and probably also with other forces of the Central Asian region, which is certainly a fact not to be disregarded.

In this case, would Turkey accept a NATO action against the Russian-Chinese axis? It is unlikely. And what about Romania?

Meanwhile, the US theories and doctrines developed by the current Commands work on the assumption of a simultaneous war against the Russian Federation and China, with the deployment of vast land and maritime forces against Russia and mainly air forces against the People's Republic of China.

The wars on two fronts, however, have never brought good luck to anyone and certainly the deployment of the Vostok 2018 forces conveys a clear message to the United States, where China is already taking revenge for the economic war unleashed against it by President Trump.

In particular, the Chinese revenge is taken through a strong secret and media commitment against the President in the upcoming midterm elections, while China knows its way around when taking actions in the Syrian region, certainly in agreement – once again – with the Russian Federation.

The Vostok 2018 exercises were above all a large-scale inter-force military operation held September 11-17, involving the Central Russian military districts (Volga and Urals) and the Eastern one (Siberia) and at least 29 regions of the whole Federation, as well as the Russian Northern and Pacific fleets and finally the Aerospace and Aircraft Forces.

In the first stage of the Vostok 2018 exercises, which lasted two days, the Joint Strategic Operational Commands of the Eastern and Central Districts and the Northern Fleet were deployed throughout the Eastern operations theatre for combat preparation and training, in addition to fully deploying the Russian Navy between the North and the Far East.

The second stage, which lasted three days, was dedicated to the organization of the inter-force groups to train and prepare the troops for escalating clashes and fights throughout the already-defined theatre of operations.

There was a systematic use of the many firing ranges of the Eastern District, with defensive and counter-offensive actions particularly in the Trans-Baikal direction, as well as similar sea operations in the Pacific.

The idea was to support deep penetrations on the ground of naval infantry and specialized land brigades, with a strong protection from the air – a real air denial.

Six shooting ranges were used only for managing ground military operations, four of the Air Forces and the Anti-Air Defense, with actions also in the Sea of Japan, in the Bering Sea, in the Sea of Okhotsk, and then in the Avacinsky Gulf and the Kronotsky Gulf.

Both Gulfs are located in the Kamchatka peninsula.

Considering the Russian and Chinese soldiers (who participated in all operations, even as mere observers), as well as the Mongolian soldiers, who specialized in land and counterattack actions, approximately 297,000 soldiers took part in the Vostok 2018 exercises, with 1,000 aircraft and helicopters; 7,000 land vehicles, including 110 tanks; 36,000 guns and pieces of artillery, as well as over 80 ships. Numbers recorded after the operations, which are much greater than what officially expected initially by the Russian Defense Ministry.

It should be recalled that the previous exercises, namely Zapad 2017, focused on the West (in fact, Zapad is a Russian word meaning West), involved "only" 12,700 Russian and Belarusian soldiers.

In the framework of this year's exercises, China had approximately 3,500 soldiers, 1,100 vehicles, 30 aircraft, and 24 helicopters.

A Russian brigade in charge of communications, stationed in Samara and counting 1,000 soldiers, was, for example, transferred to the Trans-Baikal area, 5,500 kilometers away from Samara. Also, 200 Russian troops were moved from Orenburg for additional 5,000 kilometers eastwards.

It is the operational implementation of the new Russian military doctrines of the Material-Technical Support and Combat Service Support (MTO) theories dating back to 2010 but put in place – in large quantities and at great distances – only with this operation.

Furthermore, while the various joint operations of China and the Russian Federation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) mainly regard counter-terrorist, counter-guerrilla operations and, in any case, asymmetric and non-conventional threats, Zapad 2018 only deals with conventional actions and hence war between States.

Moreover, as early as last year, Russia and China had carried out joint missile exercises.

However, why is the Russian Federation currently focusing on its Eastern flank?

History can help us to answer this question, as is always the case when it comes to strategic issues.

Russia has always been weak, often too weak, in the East.

Since that time, the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905 had placed the whole Siberian and Mongolian East out of the Russian framework, thus pushing Russia towards a disinterested West, toward which the majority of its people was already gravitating.

The current Russian leadership knows all too well how, in the early twentieth century, the British confidential documents considered Russia a "territory suitable for Socialist tests and experiments." To some extents, the Bolshevik Socialism itself was a largely unfavorable adaptation to the economies and economic systems of the West and, later, of the United States.

When the USSR spent everything possible in the strategic parity of the Cold War, Mao Zedong – who was certain he had to do with the usual "enemies of the North," namely the Russians – maintained instead that the Cold War was "a paper tiger." Nevertheless, now the global equilibria have changed, and – to paraphrase Mao Zedong again – there will be a hundred Cold Wars, a hundred different "peaces."

During the Bolshevik revolution, however, Japan, Great Britain, Italy, the United States, Canada, and China had occupied the whole Siberia and, hence, were pushing Trotsky’s Red Army to its Western borders, thus putting it in serious strategic difficulty. The Red Army was highly likely to be taken by surprise from the rear by the European countries.

The fact that the Bolshevik Russia defeated China in 1929 was at the origin of Japan’s arrival in Manchuria, which became Manchu-kuo, the first axis of Japanese penetration into Central Asia.

It is in this context that also the ambiguity of Xinjiang – the future area of development of Islamism and jihad in China – between Bolsheviks and Chinese has arisen.

The old Manchukuo was an axis capable of fully destabilizing the Chinese setup, as well as stopping Russia's economic and political expansion to Siberia and Mongolia – and it is currently still able to do so.

In fact, many Chinese leaders view the Republic of Taiwan as a "new imperial Japan."

Hence, in a phase of strong tension with NATO and substantial end of the post-Cold War equilibria between the United States and Russia, the latter secures at first its East, so as to avoid a sort of Western "knight move" that could lead to a regionalization of the Russian Federation and to its being relegated to the status of a mid-level power – the US dream since the fall of the USSR.

On the other hand, China needs to control its central terrestrial space well, with a view to securing the Belt and Road Initiative and avoiding the many encircling maneuvers that the United States has tried so far between India, Pakistan, and Iran itself, which the United States tends – often naively – to destabilize also from the inside.

It is also worth recalling the issue of raw materials: in Siberia, for example, the 2,750-km pipeline bringing the Russian-Siberian oil to China is already operating – a tangible sign of Russian autonomy from the oil and gas sales to the West.

According to Russian estimates, Siberia owns 80% of the Russian oil reserves.

Moreover, still today China imports many minerals from Brazil or Africa, but Siberia is rich in gold, iron, manganese, copper, pyrite, aluminum, precious stones, and mercury.

Hence, defending the Asian axis of Russia and of China itself means securing the Heartland’s future autonomous development.

At operational plan, Russia needed Zapad 2018 to check its forces’ technological preparation, as well as to test the inter-force command-control (the so-called C2) and to ensure and verify the strong coordination between the Army Ground Forces, the Navy and the Aerospace Forces.

Moreover, in this great exercise, an important role was also played by the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and by the most advanced robotic technologies applied to Defense.

China participated in these latest joint exercises for some important reasons: firstly, China wants to convey to the West the message that it is allied with the Russian Federation – and not for fortuitous and contingent reasons.

It also wants to convey the message that it does not need the West for planning its defense towards Taiwan and the Pacific, which are US military reference areas eastwards.

During the exercises, however, China and Mongolia had the clear aim of stopping the conventional enemy’s advance.

The strong and stable alliance between China and Russia, which the former wanted to underline, is a clear sign of China’s markedly departing from the Trump-led United States.

Secondly, China wants to demonstrate to Russia (and to those observing the political and military moves of two Asian and Euro-Asian countries) that its Armed Forces are efficient – so skillful to enable Russia to be projected onto the West without allowing encirclement or penetration from China toward Central Asia up to the Urals.

Thirdly, China wants to know well – in view of using them – the "hybrid warfare" techniques that the Russian Federation used and is still using in Syria and Ukraine.

It is also very likely that China has sent one of its spy ships between the Pacific and the Arctic – obviously without informing its allies.

Fourthly, China wants to assess how and to what extent the recent restructuring of its Armed Forces have negatively affected the fighting aptitude and the efficiency of its defensive system.

This must be certainly seen in relation to India – the future competitor for hegemony in Afghanistan and Central Asia – and also to Japan, which could thus be deterred from establishing a special relationship with Taiwan against the People’s Republic of China.

Finally, despite playing a marginal, yet important role in the Syrian region, China also wants to learn the lessons learned by the Russian Forces in that region, which will be increasingly important for China, both for its counter-terrorist actions in Xinjiang and for controlling the routes of Turkish expansion into Central Asia, as well as to finally prevent the fall of Iran, an essential ally for China both from the economic and geopolitical viewpoints.

Once broken Iran's defense arc, the US forces would be given free rein up to the Chinese borders, as well as in fighting and putting an end to the sword-jihad in Southern and Central Russia.

It should also be recalled that, shortly before the Vostok 2018 exercises, there had also been the SCO operations called "Peace Mission 2018," focused particularly on the Chelyabinsk region, together with the Indian, Pakistani and other SCO forces.

Russia, which is one of India’s traditional ally, strongly wanted that country to be SCO member. Conversely, Pakistan has always been China's best ally in the Asian Islamic world.

Furthermore, the parallelism between these two joint military operations is a clear sign that Russia wants to increasingly use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a valuable asset against its jihadist terrorism, between Chechnya and the Caliphate areas, considering that – as reported by its news agency Amaq – in 2018 ISIS has organized seven terrorist attacks in Russia.

Five Russian policemen have been killed by jihadists between Stavropol and Nizhny Novgorod, and the same holds true for other Russian soldiers as a result of terrorist operations in Dagestan.

Early this year, the FSB is supposed to have prevented as many as six jihadist attacks and arrested 189 people for alleged participation in illegal armed actions.

Allegedly, ISIS cells also operate in Rostov, as well as in the autonomous area of Yamalo-Nenets, and in Yaroslav, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.

In the previous Vostok exercises held in 2010 and 2014 (whereas the two exercises known as Zapad had been held in 1981 and 2017), China had never been invited. The focus and substance of the operations regarded a generic enemy invasion from the East (also from China?) or the simultaneous presence of several terrorist groups along the Russian Federation’s Eastern border.

Hence, by inviting the People's Liberation Army of China, Russia tested the combat preparation and the doctrinal and technological evolution of an Armed Force that has never fought for decades.

However, the alliance between Russia and China will be stable and lasting: while the Armed Forces of the two countries were involved in the Vostok 2018 exercises, Putin and Xi Jinping met on the margins of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

Hence, the Russian-Chinese message to NATO is clear: Russia is not at all isolated and can perform effective operations on both the Eastern and Western fronts, with absolute efficiency and rapidity. Moreover, Russia wants to show that its military alliances are strong and expanding.

While, in all likelihood, NATO cannot currently hold operations of the same size as Vostok 2018 and probably has not the political "glue" that China, Russia, and Mongolia proved to have in these exercises.

Turkey had also been invited to take part in the exercises, but it silently declined.

What were the results of the Vostok 2018 exercises? According to Russian Commands, there was an innovation in the success recorded by the new air assault techniques with final operations on the ground, featuring a combined action of heavy aircraft and light attack helicopters.

A mass airdrop with 700 paratroopers and many land vehicles and artillery pieces was carried out successfully in the intermediate area between East and West Russia.

Furthermore, the Northern Fleet carried out an inter-force exercise with its naval infantry and the Arctic Brigade, reaching targets on the ground up to 270 kilometers from the coast.

In short, there was the testing of a strong doctrinal, technological, tactical and logistic evolution of a great Armed Force like the Russian one.

There was also the reaffirmation – often reiterated by Russian Defense Minister Shoigu – that the military alliance with China is and will be stable and that ultimately Russia and its allies, unlike others, can credibly contain a war on two fronts.