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Russian War Games Seek to Cement Ties With China, Send Message to West

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe watch the military parade during Vostok-2018 (East-2018) war games at Tsugol military training ground in Zabaikalsky region, Russia, Sept. 13, 2018.

Russia is holding its largest military exercises since the Cold War in the far eastern part of the country, and for the first time it has invited contingents from China and Mongolia.

About 36,000 tanks and 300,000 Russian troops, a third of the country’s military personnel, are on maneuvers in the vast expanses of eastern Siberia. China has sent more than 3,000 troops.

The skies are patrolled by 1,000, aircraft, including strategic long-range bombers. In the Arctic and Pacific oceans, 80 Russian warships are conducting mock battles and landing drills.

Russian President Vladimir Putin took a front-row seat to observe the exercises Thursday and praised the relationship with the country’s eastern neighbors.

“I would like to say a special thank you to the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China and Mongolia. Our fraternity in arms has long and firm traditions,” Putin said.

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Global resonance

The war games, known as Vostok ’18, come as relations between Moscow and the West continue to worsen following the poisoning of a former double agent on British soil. Meanwhile the trade war between Beijing and Washington continues to deepen.

The exercises may be taking place in a remote corner of the world, but they have global resonance, said analyst Emily Ferris of London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

“As well as demonstrating to the West that it has this alliance with China, it’s also an opportunity for Russia to show what it’s learned from its military interventions, for example in Syria, for example in eastern Ukraine,” Ferris told VOA in an interview.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the United States and its allies to impose sanctions on Moscow.

“The Western sanctions have damaged Russia’s ability to get, for example, military components that it used to get from its Western partners. And so, Russia’s military in the meantime is undergoing a 10-year-long renovation and upgrade. And so, to pay for those parts, Russia is going to need to find alternative partners,” Ferris said.

The exercises coincide with the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, attended by several heads of state. With China engaged in a spiraling trade war with the United States, analysts say Moscow sees an opportunity to deepen relations with Beijing.

“They are politically becoming very close. Economically, the Russian-Chinese trade is booming, when other kinds of trade, especially in Russia, is not booming at all. And also, of course, now militarily, they are acting together as brothers-in-arms in military games that are basically aimed at the United States and its allies,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst based in Moscow.

Sources of tension

Ferris said there are also sources of tension in the relationship.

“Particularly the belt-and-road initiative of China’s that sort of bypasses Russia, especially because China is quite interested in countries like Ukraine and Belarus, and using its infrastructure as a gateway to Europe. I think Russia is quite suspicious of what China is planning,” she said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Tuesday that he sees “little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.” The military exercises come amid threats from Washington of more sanctions against Russia if it conducts an assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held area in Syria. The United Nations has warned of a potential massacre of civilians.