The Vostok 2018 exercises, which will begin on the eastern fringe of the country at the end of August, are remarkable not only in scale. Incorporating Chinese armed forces for the first time, they also seem to indicate a major geopolitical shift in the region. Moscow has previously viewed China, its richer and more populous neighbour, with suspicion.
Authorities in Beijing have confirmed that 3,200 soldiers, 900 tanks and 30 jets and helicopters will take part in the manoeuvres. A smaller number will be contributed by Mongolian army. Russia will contribute a more substantial, as yet unspecified, number from two military districts. The promise of a new record would suggest the participation of more than the 100,000 servicemen, 1,500 tanks, 120 aircraft, and 70 ships seen in similar drills in 2014.
Speaking on Monday, Sergei Shoigu, the Russian minister of defence, described the upcoming manoeuvres as “the largest military exercise since 1981... unprecedented in geography and the number of military units taking part.” Zvezda, a TV channel run by his ministry, said the exercises would mirror the style of those high-Soviet war games: “The 1981 drills were also wide in scope and included foreign partners … from the Warsaw Pact countries.”
The upward trend in numbers tells reflects a military that is “finding its feet”, and “operating more widely”, says Mark Galeotti, from the Institute of International Relations Prague.
International collaboration has been at the heart of that expansion, he says: “Despite furious Western attempts to isolate the Kremlin, countries still want to collaborate with Russia. By arms sales and cooperation, Russia is using its military strength to increase its geopolitical presence in the world.”
Russia and its partners have been tight-lipped about the detail of the Vostok 2018 exercise – the nature of the hypothetical attack and the identity of the external enemy. According to Mr Galeotti, they will likely include insurgency and other non-conventional threats alongside traditional military threats.
The general logic of the joint exercise suggests Moscow continues to see the US and its allies as its major strategic foe. It also could spell trouble for Russian-Japanese relations.
Under the leadership of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has embarked on a policy of engaging Moscow – and offering economic carrots – in the hope of a deal to resolve a 70-year territorial dispute over the South Kuril Islands. Mr Abe is due to lend his face to Vladimir Putin’s flagship Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on 11 September. In a coincidence that may not go down well in Tokyo, this will also be the start day for joint military exercises with China.
The Japanese approach to Russia was always naive, says Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Asia-Pacific Programme at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. A unique set of circumstances – Ukraine, President Donald Trump, sanctions and trade wars – has necessarily pushed Russia and China closer together at the expense of Japan.
“After Ukraine, Russia decided China was no longer a threat – certainly not in the next 15 to 20 years,” says Mr Gabuev. “Good relations with China are now a priority. Who else can promise billions of dollars to banks under US sanctions? China has done that with VEB. Japan, an ally of the US, certainly can’t.”
Senior Russian lawmakers have meanwhile made little secret as to who they consider the target audience of Vostok 2018 to be. Speaking to Zvezda channel, Frants Klintsevich, member of the Defence and Security Committee in Russia’s upper house, said the coordinated exercises were a signal to the United States.
“They were once very happy that our units, divisions and personnel were unpracticed and unable to collaborate,” he said. “Times have changed.”
But a complicated picture likely lurks behind the anti-American rhetoric, suggests Mr Galeotti.
“Russia wants to be treated as a formidable power, but, paradoxically, its view of the world revolves around Washington,” he says.
“It desperately wants to be treated as a peer nation.”