Is Russia Losing Control of Its Far East?
Image Credit: The Presidential Press and Information Office (Russia)

Is Russia Losing Control of Its Far East?


There has been considerable speculation recently about a nascent alliance between China and Russia, especially given the context of America’s “pivot” to Asia. The pivot coincides with increasing anxiety by Russia over its Far East and has led it to increase its political and economic presence in the region. But despite recent military exercises, Xi Jinping’s first foreign visit to Moscow and other signs of growing cooperation between the two countries, the bilateral relationship is a short-term calculation by Russia that while interests coincide for now it is in fact China that poses the greatest threat to Russia’s presence in the East.

Whenever Russia decides to assert its authority in what it considers its sphere of influence or in a particular region, it can be safely assumed that its military will be a key component of its strategy. And Russia’s military has been much more active as of late, from plans to modernize and create a cutting-edge, mobile force that Putin believes Russia merits to an increasing number of drills in areas of strategic importance.

In mid-July, China and Russia staged their largest ever joint naval drills. China dispatched seven warships (from both its North and South Sea fleet), with Russia contributing its Pacific fleet flagship, the Slava class guided missile cruiser Varyag, and a Kilo class submarine, among other assets. In addition to being the largest foreign naval exercises by China, they went beyond counter piracy and terrorism drills to actively work on anti-submarine, surface and air defense warfare, apparently aimed at countering U.S. or its allied navies. They also followed a joint training exercise between the U.S. Navy and Marines with Japanese Self Defense Forces in Southern California, but deputy commander-in-chief of the Chinese navy Vice Admiral Ding Yiping stated that the drills were not targeted at any third parties and were aimed at improving the two states’ anti-piracy cooperation. Still, the exercises were interpreted by many analysts as yet another sign of a convergence by both Russia and China on the need to actively counter the increasing U.S. pivot to the region.

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But China and Russia are cooperating on more than just extensive naval drills. The two countries hold an annual anti-terror drill named “Peace Mission,” which this year took place at the Chebarkul training range in Chelyabinsk. The drills are held every year and rotate between Russia and China, exemplifying a growing “military rapprochement.” between the countries. "We maintain successful military-technical and military cooperation,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Chinese State Council member Yang Jiechi, “The exercise, which has ended recently, proves this."

Nonetheless, despite the glowing appraisals by both Putin and Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev on the quality of relations between the two countries, both history and geopolitical considerations should temper expectations of any growing alliance.

On the heels of their much vaulted naval drills, Russia launched its largest military exercises since the Soviet era, aimed at displaying the status of Russia’s modernizing armed forces and signaling that China is not the only power in the region with significant military strength. The snap drills, the third since January testing the readiness of the military, supposedly numbered some 160,000 troops, 130 planes and 70 ships. (Russia has also conducted other exercises in the region, ostensibly aimed at posturing to China. These exercises, called Vostok, are smaller in scale but are meant to display Russia’s ability to conduct combined arms operations.) As has been written previously, there are significant questions as to whether the drills involved the numbers advertised and whether they went as well as Putin says they did, which was “more than satisfactory.” As Alexander Golts wrote in The Moscow Times, “…out of a desire to impress Putin, the top brass lumped all the units of both the Eastern and Central Military Districts into one wildly inflated figure (despite the fact that) most of those units never deployed anywhere or took part in any maneuvers.”

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