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.