Asia, Defense and Security, Russia and Eurasia

Three Questions from Last Month’s Giant Vostok Exercise

Peter Zwack – 10.29.18

This year’s edition of Russia’s giant annual joint exercise—Vostok (East) 2018—was notable for its sizable Chinese and small Mongolian contingent, and for its multi-theater strategic scope. Previous Chinese participation in Russian wargames were small-scale affairs, held under the rubric of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or show-the-flag combined naval exercises in the Baltic, Mediterranean, and South China Seas. But September’s event saw a 3,200-troop Chinese contingent join a reported 297,000 Russians pulled from the Eastern and Central Military Districts and elsewhere for training on the Tsugol range near Chita in eastern Siberia’s Trans-Baikal region. (For an excellent, detailed look at Vostok 2018, see CNA Senior Research Scientist Michael Kofman’s blog posts on the exercise.)

Now, a month after the exercise’s dust has settled, these new twists invite a few questions:

  • Was it a real effort to move beyond basic military-to-military cooperation toward actual interoperability?
  • Were the Russians and Chinese troops combining tactics, techniques and procedures; honing command and control; and even sharing basic combat intelligence?
  • And most of all, are these massive, well-publicized annual events also designed to psychologically mobilize Russian society to prepare for the possibility of general war with the West, which the Russian government publicly portrays as its most likely existential threat?
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