181107 East01From 11 to 17 September, the Russian armed forces conducted the active phase of the Vostok-2018 strategic-operational war game exercise. Vostok 2018 was the largest Russian military exercises held over the past four decades. Conducted as part of the Russian Armed Forces combat training plan 2018, the drills were held across Russia’s Far East and Pacific waters, under the overall command of the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. By staging this impressive show the Kremlin sought more than just to test and improve command and control and forces integration.


Size and Objectives - the Official Aspect


Vostok-2018 is certainly the largest military exercise ever held in Russia’s modern history. The exercise was the largest held in Russia since Zapad-81 conducted by the Soviet Union -- the maneuvers held in the Belorussian, Kiev and Baltic Military Districts, as well as the Baltic Sea in 1981, and with participation of military contingents deployed by several Warsaw Pact armies.


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The Vostok-2018 maneuvers were held in the opposite part of the continent across three theaters of operations in the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and in the Avacha and Kronotsky Bays in Kamchatka, hosted by five combined-arms military ranges and four training ranges of Russia’s Air Force and Air Defense Force. The drills rehearsed massive air strikes, cruise missile defense, defensive, offensive, and raid operations, as well as enveloping attacks. In the Sea of ​​Okhotsk and the northwestern Pacific, participants practiced air defense operations and carrying out strikes on groups of warships and amphibious assault landings. Air Force crews exercised support to advancing ground forces and coastal defense.


Officially, the exercise involved nearly 300,000 Russian service members, about 36,000 armored vehicles, more than 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, complemented by up to 80 warships and support vessels.


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Hidden goals


The Vostok-2018 was apparently aimed to achieve far more goals than just to test Russian army’s preparedness for a military intervention in a foreign country. These maneuvers weren’t just aimed to yet again demonstrate Russia’s military might and to test its forces’ readiness status in expansive and extensive military operations. The event took place a week before the South-North Korea summit in Pyongyang, which might indicate Moscow’s intention to show itself prepared to become the key player in the region and, also, to demonstrate it has something to fight with in that weakened region under the watchful eye of neighboring China. After all, the Kremlin, by having redeployed much of its forces and equipment from the country’s central regions to the Southern and Western Military Districts weakened the capabilities of its sensitive Central (TsVO) and Eastern (VVO) Military Districts.


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Specifically in June 2016, the 28th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade from Yekaterinburg was redeployed to Klintsy, Bryansk region, where it was reorganized into the 488th Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 144th Motorized Rifle Division. The 23rd Brigade was transferred from Samara to Valuyki, Belgorod region. The 9th Independent Vistula Motorized Rifle Brigade has been moved to Boguchar from Nizhny Novgorod Region. In 2016, these brigades were merged to form what is now the 3rd Motorized Rifle Division.


The Central Military District is currently below establishment in front-line aircraft and modern ground vehicles among other types of weapons. The TsVO, although recently augmented with some current-generation armaments, is still equipped mostly with technologies of the last century. There are huge gaps in its air defense capabilities that are modernized far slower than those deployed at Russia’s western borders.


China’s and Mongolia’s involvement in the maneuvers, although initially unplanned, was part of a dual-goal strategy. One was to demonstrate to the West that the Russian Federation is exploring further its relationship with China -- its eastern neighbor and former adversary. Seemingly, this implies that "If you don’t want to lose a partner such as Russia, who can well turn fully to the East, let's then talk and about sanctions among other things.” The other was to demonstrate to China what capabilities Russia has in that region while simultaneously downplaying concerns that the war game maneuvers might be directed against Beijing.


It is important to note that Vostok-2018 could serve as an expedient means to deflect the attention of the Russian people away from internal problems in the country. In Russia, despite the recently adopted pension reform legislation, the falling ruble, decreasing consumer demand, and a growing job shortage, the population is very receptive to military rhetoric. These maneuvers will certainly not be able to keep people’s morale high for a long time, but there will be others that will. After all, this way you can explain to the public where the taxpayers’ money goes to.


Ukrainian aspect


There is one more important aspect: from 20 to 25 August, the Eastern Military District held a Logistic Support (MTO) exercise in anticipation of the Vostok-2018 in order to rehearse the full set of tasks assigned to the District’s MTO service.


The exercise emphasized the shipment of weapons from storage sites to active-service units. Particularly at a storage base in Buryatia, Zabaikalsky Krai, tank crews were trained for combat use of the T-72 and T-62 tanks intended for delivery to two tank companies.


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However, under the guise of exercises, the number of vehicles relocated to other destinations far exceeded the officially reported 20 tanks (10 tanks per company). And these destinations were not only in the Eastern Military District but much farther and closer to borders with Ukraine, as seen from numerous photo and video evidences that were posted on social media by Russian citizens in late August - early September 2018 and scrutinized by different media outlets.


Asked about the destinations for the vehicles, Russian soldiers guarding the trains answered: “The border with Ukraine”.


There could be many assumptions as to why these are the locations bordering on Ukraine. Possible purposes could be to build-up military capabilities in the occupied areas in Ukraine in preparation for future operations; to dispose of the vehicles while in combat rather than at industrial facilities; or to replace the new Russian vehicles deployed to Donbas previously with aging Soviet brand counterparts in order to conceal own presence and to pull the wool over eyes of the OSCE mission in the region among many more other purposes.


As a matter of fact, Moscow’s deploying outdated and aging T-62 tanks to Donbas is aimed to achieve several goals.


In one respect, the Kremlin, while showing willingness to de-escalate the Donbas could go as far as to provide for the OSCE mission full access to its occupied area in the depths of the Donbas region. This well explains the rationale behind deploying the old T-62s there – to make members of the OSCE mission believe that the “rebellious people of Donbas” are fighting only with these obsolete Soviet-generation armaments. But they should know that the nearest and the only military equipment storage site at Bakhmut (renamed from Artemivsk), which is frequently mentioned by Russian propaganda as the location from which plenty of different military vehicles had been seized, had never stored T-62 tanks, neither had it ever been controlled by the so-called “DNR”. They should know also that the T-62 and the T-64 are two fundamentally different designs, both in appearance and in internal layout.


The other rationale for Moscow to replace its armored vehicles, including the T-72 tanks and its different modifications with older-generation T-62s could be the need to fill in the capability gaps that have resulted from massed military equipment withdrawals from central Russia during 2015-17. Russia’s border with China might appear to be distanced too far away from these locations of capability gaps, but still it’s much easier and quicker to relocate there forces and equipment from central Russia than from the locations on its western borders that Russia fears could be subjected to a “threat from the West”.


Notice should furthermore be taken of the fact that the presence of T-62 tanks in that region could be facilitative to Russia’s cooperation with Syria. After all, Moscow has already deployed these vehicles to that country and employed them in military operations there. If and when Damascus requires additions to its fleet of armored vehicles, the T-62s might well fit for that purpose.


This all well exemplifies the Kremlin’s trademark “multimove” strategy. By conducting this exercises, Moscow is once again trying to demonstrate its power (that has caused so many troubles over the past four years) and intention to become a key player in that region, and to show off its capabilities where it deems necessary and where China is looking at watchfully.


Moreover, the Kremlin is pursuing a dual-goal strategy in Donbas, aimed to stuff the region up with aging Soviet-era equipment while withdrawing more advanced Russian hardware to fill in the capability gaps in the Central Military District. This reveals who the Kremlin is afraid of and where the real outside threat could be coming from. And this is certainly not the West.


Whatever Russian intentions may be, we should anticipate that the second half of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 will see lots of events that can change the Donbas situation and have their impact on Donbas and the wider international situation.


Anton Mikhnenko,

Ukrainian Defense Revew


You can find this article in Ukrainian here: «ВОСТОК-2018» - СКРЫТАЯ СТОРОНА


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