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Russia’s Vostok Exercises Were Both Serious Planning and a Show

Monday, September 17, 2018   (0 Comments)

By: Mathieu Boulègue  |  September 17, 2018  |  Chatham House


From 11 to 17 September, the Russian armed forces conducted the active phase of the Vostok-2018 strategic military exercise. Throughout the week, Russia’s far east hosted a coordinated ballet of troops rehearsing across multiple strategic directions. In a twist, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army participated for the first time. 

It was an impressive show, but it also offers serious lessons as to Russia’s military planning and preparedness and its diplomatic footing towards both China and the West.

The military dimension
The Vostok 2018 exercise was part of a pre-planned life-cycle of massive drills occurring across all of Russia’s military commands that aim to strengthen command and control (C2) and forces integration. Much like Zapad-2017, Vostok is about more than the ‘hot phase’ observed by international cameras between 11 and 17 September. It started as early as 20 August, when the armed forces went through combat-readiness tests, snap inspections and support units drills.

Like previous iterations in 2010 and 2014, the drills aimed to test and improve troop preparedness, strategic mobility, military logistics and joint operations between army branches. A naval element featured prominently this year across three theatres of operations in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and in the Avacha and Kronotsky Bays in Kamchatka, illustrating that Russia is testing its ability to conduct operations in multiple theatres.

The 2018 drills emphasized troop displacement over long distances: as many as 297,000 troops of the Central and Eastern Military Districts were reportedly deployed throughout the week across nine distinct training ranges located in Russia’s far east. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, this represented the biggest military exercise since Zapad-1981, when Warsaw Pact forces rehearsed the invasion of Poland.

But it is likely that the number of troops has been largely inflated, as part of the Kremlin’s sabre-rattling rhetoric. This emphasis on numbers, rather than on capabilities and intentions, further feeds the Western fixation on the size of Russian forces as well as Moscow’s ‘great power’ narrative at home. 

Practice makes perfect… again
Still, the breadth of the exercise was impressive. It uniquely involved several major military districts, as troops from the Central Military District and the Northern Fleet confronted the Eastern Military District and the Pacific Fleet. After establishing communication links and organizing forces, live firing between September 13-17 included air strikes, air defence operations, ground manoeuvres and raids, sea assault and landings, coastal defence, and electronic warfare. 

The Russian army also deployed its most advanced military hardware. Air defence forces tested a new unified command and control system that connects the S-300, S-400 and Pantsir-S1 systems on the same network, allowing unprecedented automation. As military logistics are increasingly important in these types of operation, the exercise included numerous Logistical Support Units (MTO) and sapper units, which are responsible for supporting early advances of troops.  READ MORE...

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