The headline figures for Russia’s Vostok (or “East”) military exercises, which began yesterday, are dramatic: 300,000 soldiers, 36,000 tanks and other vehicles, 80 ships, and 1,000 aircraft operating across more than half the country. That’s double the size of the British armed forces. It’s also twice the size of the last Vostok war games, held back in 2014. As if that weren’t enough, some 3,200 Chinese troops and 30 aircraft are also involved, along with a small Mongolian force.
Vostok will take the form of a week-long clash between two sides, fought on land, in the air, and in the waters off the Russian Far East. The drills will include staging parachute jumps, conducting “anti-terrorist operations,” and shooting down cruise missiles. The exercise will conclude with a review of the forces in the field, a photo opportunity featuring row upon row of tanks, troops, and miscellaneous hardware. In a way, that’s the whole point. Vostok is not just a big military-training drill—it’s a massive psychological-warfare operation and a geopolitical gambit, being undertaken by Russia as it regains much of its martial mojo and its ability to mount and coordinate complex operations.
That said, there’s a difference between showing off your hardware and testing your new tactics, and actually going to war. We shouldn’t assume that Russia actually wants to fight some major conflict. If nothing else, while Vostok’s scale shows that Moscow has regained the capacity for a continental-scale operation, it could hardly afford to fight one for real. It would have a hard time mustering this kind of army during wartime, when railway lines and communication hubs would be primary targets.