Russia is holding its biggest war games since the era of the Soviet Union in its Far East region that borders on China, Japan and Korea.
President Vladimir Putin ordered the snap drill on Friday when he told the Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to inform countries like China that border on where the drill will be held. It is the third such snap drill to be held by Russia since Putin reassumed the office of the presidency.
Putin has praised holding snap drills as the best way to demonstrate combat readiness.
According to Russian media sources, “160,000 servicemen, 1000 tanks, 130 planes and 70 ships” are participating in the drills, which will continue through July 20.
A statement released by Russia’s Defense Ministry said: “The main purpose of the activities is to check the readiness of the military units to perform assigned tasks and evaluate the level of personnel’s training and technical preparation as well as the level of equipment of units with arms and military equipment.”
Many Russian officials emphasized that the participating troops did not know their final destination or explicit objective at the beginning of the drill, in an apparent effort to make the games more realistic.
Officials also emphasized that the military drills were not aimed at any particular nation(s), but rather just geared towards enhancing the readiness of Russian combat troops.
This seemed to be called into question on Tuesday when Putin himself visited troops participating in the drill on Sakhalin Island, which is just north of Japan.
A retired Russian general told the BBC that “The Sakhalin part of the maneuvers was intended to simulate a response to a hypothetical attack by Japanese and U.S. forces.”
Russia and Japan dispute the Kuril Islands, albeit since taking office Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a valiant effort to settle this dispute in order to direct both sides’ attention to China’s rising military might.
Similarly, Alexander Khramchikhin, whom the BBC describes as an independent Moscow-based military analyst, told the UK broadcaster “the land part of the exercise is directed at China, while the sea and island part of it is aimed at Japan.”
As this suggests, the drills illustrate just how fraught Russian-Chinese relations remain despite the recent notable improvements in certain areas, like energy and military cooperation (last week Russia and China held their largest joint naval exercises.)
In particular, many Russian officials strongly suspect China of trying to mount a long-term annexation strategy over Russia’s Far East, due to the large number of Chinese immigrants who have populated the area in recent years. Other countries, notably the U.S. in the 19th Century, have used similar strategies to expand their territory.
As Vassily Mikheev, deputy director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics (IMEMO), part of Russia’s Academy of Sciences, told the American scholar David Shambaugh in 2009:
“Anti-Chinese feelings are very strong [in Russia] and changing. There is a feeling that China wants to conquer the Russian Far East. In the past five to six years, these primitive anti-China sentiments are being joined by new anti-China feelings based on a fear of economic threat.”
Here’s an admittedly unimpressive video of the drill, courtesy of Russia Today: