Main Image Credit Show of force: Russian President Vladimir Putin observes the Vostok-2022 military exercises in Russia's Far East. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Recent exercises held in Russia’s Far East can be seen as the culmination of a series of events, as security cooperation between Russia and China continues to grow.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are meeting today in Uzbekistan, in their first face-to-face meeting since their much-touted early February 2022 summit, which took place on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This follows Russia’s quadrennial military exercises known as Vostok (East), which took place from 1–7 September. This year, they featured units from China, India, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua and Syria, and around 50,000 personnel. Russia’s Eastern Military District (EMD) is overseeing the exercises, held mostly in the waters and coastal areas around the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan.
Analysis of Russia’s exercises tends to focus on their size – as they have been steadily expanding – the content of military hardware on display, or their joint nature with China, all of which are relevant. But the political context in which the Vostok exercises are operating is no less significant. This year, as most of Russia’s military capabilities are engaged on the Ukraine front, Vostok was not just an exercise in symbolism, but the capstone of a series of political events, cemented by Xi and Putin’s latest meeting.
Does Size Matter?
In recent years, Vostok has become a parade of Russia’s security allies. For a country often described in the West as diplomatically isolated, this is an important opportunity – among many of late – to show that it does have plenty of countries willing to publicly align themselves with its worldview. But there are other events around Vostok that provide important context to its military capabilities.
First, these exercises followed a lengthy trip by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Africa in July, where he attempted to assuage allies’ concerns over the Ukraine war, framing the economic fallout from the conflict as a Western preoccupation. It was also an opportunity for Russia to capitalise on longstanding rifts between Africa and the West, painting Moscow’s role on the continent as supportive, set against a perceived interventionist West. Crucially, this trip highlighted that the Ukraine war and Western sanctions have not prevented Moscow from maintaining partners who are willing to buy Russian weapons and grain supplies.
Second, in mid-August, Russia held its annual Arms Expo in Moscow – a military exhibition of its defence hardware, usually to foreign arms buyers. Although the Expo is a display of Russia’s capabilities, even Russian military analysts criticised the offering, noting that the armed forces were beset by technical issues, including a lack of high-precision weapons and aiming equipment – reducing the effectiveness of its Su-34 bombers. Chinese and Iranian companies also exhibited at the forum, but it seems the Chinese presence this year was more symbolic than usual. In previous years, Russia has been an important defence supplier for China, but China’s increasing manufacturing of its own weaponry – based on Russian blueprints – seems to have shifted its interests away from the Russian market.
For a country often described in the West as diplomatically isolated, the exercises were an important opportunity to show that Russia does have plenty of countries willing to publicly align themselves with its worldview
Third and perhaps most significantly, the exercises took place over the same period as the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), the most important trade event in the Far East, held from 5–8 September in the regional capital of Vladivostok. The EEF was set up in 2015 and is part of Russia’s broader agenda to boost investment in its underfunded Far Eastern regions, particularly from China, Japan and South Korea. At a time of strict Western sanctions, the EEF is a welcome distraction for Russia, and part of a serious attempt to reroute trade to the Indo-Pacific region. The forum’s agenda noted the importance of shipping around the Arctic; bilateral partnerships such as those with India and Vietnam; as well as reorientating Russia’s automotive and IT industries to the East. Putin spoke at the Forum’s plenary session on 6 September, the day after he attended parts of the Vostok drill, indicating the importance accorded to this event.
Finally, Vostok also cannot escape the consequences of the Ukraine war. Aside from a downsized force, Vostok operated this year with personnel changes. Scheduled exercises such as these are overseen by Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and the commander of the EMD. But the EMD’s commander, Alexander Chaiko, was dismissed in May following the district’s poor performance in Ukraine – the Ukrainian Security Services accused Chaiko of orchestrating the failed invasion of Ukraine’s north and east in February, in Russia’s ill-fated attempt to capture Kyiv.
Chaiko’s removal was part of a reshuffle of several senior Russian commanders – some of whom were reportedly killed in action in Ukraine. The EMD has suffered heavy losses in Ukraine, given Russia’s preference for deploying soldiers from its ethnic republics such as Buryatia to bear the brunt of the fighting. With very little fanfare, Chaiko was replaced by Rustam Muradov in July. Muradov has experience in Syria and Dagestan, and was deputy commander of the Southern Military District. Ultimately, this did not disrupt the overall command and control regime of Vostok, but it served as a baptism of fire for Muradov, and highlights the continuing impact of the war on the workings of the Russian military.
No Limits? Some Limits
This context is important for the Russia–China relationship, even if China’s Ministry of Defence took pains to state that the exercises were divorced from politics. Vostok also follows US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August, with further Congressional visits planned, at a time when US–China relations are particularly strained. Xi is alleged to have asked US President Joe Biden to prevent the visit from taking place; the fact that it went ahead prompted a strong reaction from China, including conducting live-fire drills around the island, import bans on Taiwanese products, and a halt to dialogues with Washington. This was not simply about Taiwan, one of the Communist Party’s most sensitive policy priorities. In addition to domestic economic troubles, Xi will seek his third term at the 20th Party Congress in October. Showing weakness in the face of a perceived slight was not an option.
The importance of displaying strength is not new, and the People’s Liberation Army has participated in Russian exercises before. But defence officials proudly noted that for the first time, China’s army, navy and air force would be participating, as well as dispatching People’s Liberation Army Navy ships to the Sea of Japan. There was also an emphasis on joint coordination in planning, command and operations – an aspect that China must exercise internally as well as with Russia.
The so-called ‘no limits’ relationship between Russia and China – a term coined after the February summit in Beijing – is often deployed to describe their ties, but while there is progress, there are limits. In the security domain, they do not have an agreement on mutual assistance akin to NATO’s Article 5, and although their sweeping joint statements in February did indicate a growing formality to their security arrangements, they do not yet have an official bilateral agreement. China has stopped short of sending military hardware or troops to support Russia on the Ukraine front, though there has been speculation over whether increased Chinese exports of microchips and raw materials like aluminium oxide could serve a dual-use purpose.
Although Russia and China's sweeping joint statements in February did indicate a growing formality to their security arrangements, they do not yet have an official bilateral agreement
Despite warm rhetoric between Putin and Xi, local media in the borderlands of Russia’s Far East are mindful of history: borders in the region have changed hands for hundreds of years. Social media users have often commented on Chinese migration in the Far East and the potential for China to claim parts of Siberia and the Far East, however unlikely. There have also been numerous protests in Khabarovsk over the past three years, chiefly over local politics – a popular regional governor was dismissed and replaced by a Moscow lackey – but also the lack of state funding for large projects, and the visible economic disparity between the Far East and parts of neighbouring China.
Despite all this, Xi is visiting Samarkand for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit, where he is meeting with Putin – his first overseas trip since the pandemic. The two leaders are likely to use this opportunity for another show of alignment.
Location, Location, Location
Vostok also demonstrated the importance to Russia of testing out its strategic plans. Unlike Vostok 2018, these exercises featured a maritime component, which follows Russia’s publication in July 2022 of its updated Naval Doctrine. The Doctrine was mostly orientated against the US and NATO’s activities at sea, highlighting the Western sanctions against Russia’s shipbuilding enterprises as a serious risk to the development of its fleet. Upon announcing the Doctrine, Putin noted that several seas, including the Sea of Okhotsk, were considered strategic areas of interest. In practical terms, this likely means more funding for military purposes, increased security and patrols in those areas, and heightened political sensitivity should other states pursue military activities in those waters.
This emphasis on the Sea of Okhotsk likely accounts for Russia’s decision to hold part of the Vostok exercises near the Kuril Islands (known as the Northern Territories in Japan), an island chain whose ownership is disputed by Russia and Japan. The date of 3 September also fell in the middle of the exercises – an anniversary that Russia and China recognise as Victory Day over Japan in the Second World War. Japan has already expressed its dissatisfaction with Russia’s decision to include the Kurils in the exercises, but Moscow has not responded.
This year, Vostok is best understood as the culmination of a series of events which showcase Putin and Xi’s actions, not just words.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security
Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific