Rus­sia bares teeth at the West and wags tail at China


Rus­sia’s gi­ant war games in eastern Siberia, which end to­day, are meant as a blunt mes­sage that it is ready for war and knows how to wage it — but are also a re­veal­ing in­di­ca­tion of weak­ness.

Ex­er­cises in which 3000 Chi­nese troops are par­tic­i­pat­ing with a vast Rus­sian force have raised the wor­ry­ing prospect of Moscow join­ing com­mu­nist China in an anti-Western axis.

“They’re say­ing, ‘If you carry on mak­ing us a pariah, we’ll throw in our lot with China and you won’t be able to cope’,” Gen­eral Sir Richard Bar­rons, for­mer chief of Bri­tain’s joint forces com­mand, said. “They’re say­ing, ‘Don’t mess with us’.”

The ma­noeu­vres in­volv­ing thou­sands of air­craft and tanks are the big­gest since 1981 and a part of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s cam­paign to re­in­state Rus­sia among the world’s great pow­ers. But a weak econ­omy un­der­mines Putin’s grandiose vi­sion and, with Moscow’s re­la­tions with the West at a low over the Sal­is­bury poi­son­ings, there is an el­e­ment of bluff and blus­ter be­hind the Krem­lin’s dis­play of mil­i­tary mus­cle.

“Rus­sia knows it’s go­ing to lose if the West mo­bilises against it,” Bar­rons said. “They feel threat­ened and weak. But they are ex­tremely good at hy­brid war­fare, sow­ing dis­cord among us.”

The of­fi­cial num­ber of troops tak­ing part — 300,000 — is greatly in­flated, he added. “Mov­ing a force that size around the coun­try would cre­ate se­ri­ous dis­rup­tion, and we haven’t seen that.”

Mark Ga­le­otti, a se­cu­rity ex­pert, said the games, named “Vos­tok”, mean­ing east, were a cam­paign of “heavy metal diplo­macy”. “Rus­sia is des­per­ate to demon­strate to Amer­ica the ex­tent to which it’s a great mil­i­tary power,” he said. “Like an an­i­mal puff­ing out its fur and baring its teeth when faced with a preda­tor, it wants to look as for­mi­da­ble as pos­si­ble.”

The drills last week in­cluded mis­sile tests and an ex­hi­bi­tion of tanks and heavy weaponry — di­rected partly, per­haps, at Don­ald Trump, who has ex­pressed envy of Moscow’s mil­i­tary pa­rades.

Pre­vi­ous rounds of Rus­sian war games were staged as a de­ter­rent not against NATO, but against China, Rus­sia’s gi­ant neigh­bour, for long con­sid­ered a threat — and with good rea­son.

“China looks at the vast, nat­u­ral-re­source-rich tracts of Siberia the way a dog looks at a rib­eye steak,” ac­cord­ing to James Stavridis, a re­tired US ad­mi­ral and for­mer NATO com­man­der.

Now, how­ever, Moscow and Bei­jing have over­come their mu­tual dis­trust and re­la­tions are flour­ish­ing, en­er­gised by the Western sanc­tions im­posed on Rus­sia af­ter its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014 and Amer­ica’s trade war with China.

As the war games were un­der way last week, Putin and Xi Jin­ping, his Chi­nese coun­ter­part, met over caviar and vodka at the Eastern Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Vladi­vos­tok. Putin has promised that Rus­sia’s Asian pivot will en­rich his coun­try’s sparsely pop­u­lated east.

China is one of the few rich coun­tries that can pro­vide sup­port to sanc­tioned Rus­sian banks and busi­ness.

The Chi­nese have high­lighted the new re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia as a way of chal­leng­ing Amer­ica’s dom­i­nant global role.

“The com­bi­na­tion of the two coun­tries, es­pe­cially with Rus­sia’s nat­u­ral re­sources and China’s in­dus­trial prow­ess, would in­evitably come as a big chal­lenge to the West,” said Jonathan Hol­slag, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics at the Free Uni­ver­sity of Brus­sels.

China, which has not been in­volved in com­bat op­er­a­tions in sev­eral decades, may have more to gain from the mil­i­tary ma­noeu­vres than bat­tle­hard­ened Rus­sia.

“China’s armed forces are vast and am­bi­tious,” said Bar­rons. “But there’s zero op­er­a­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s their Achilles heel.”

They will pick up a few tips, no doubt, from their new friends.

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