Russia has planned two back-to-back military exercises involving tens of thousands of troops across its eastern and western borders alongside China and Belarus.
The first exercise is called Zapad-Interaction, or West-Interaction, 2021 and was scheduled to begin Monday at the Qingtongxia Joint Tactical Training Base in northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The combined maneuvers were announced jointly last week by the Russian and Chinese militaries, and were set to feature up to 10,000 personnel and various weaponry and equipment from both sides.
The official Chinese Military Online published a report Thursday detailing the preliminary training of troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District who have already arrived in China to meet counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army Western Theater Command.
This will be the two nations’ fourth consecutive strategic exercise together and the first to be held in China.
“Taking counter-terrorism and stability maintenance as the mission scenario, the ‘Zapad/Interaction2021’ joint exercise will see Chinese and Russian troops jointly carrying out strikes against terrorist forces in mixed groups,” the Chinese military said. “The special operations forces of both sides will complete the task of seizing the high ground and trench in accordance with the pre-plan, and then carry out the task of penetrating the enemy in depth.”
Beijing and Moscow have intensified their military-technical ties in recent years, and have emphasized their bond over the past month as the pair celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation.
Today, China and Russia are closer than ever, and look to actively demonstrate that unity as they tackle international issues together, including the threat of Afghanistan’s instability penetrating Central Asia as the last U.S. troops leave by the end of this month.
The Russian Armed Forces and People’s Liberation Army of China will also train alongside one another next month as part of the upcoming Peace Mission 2021 exercises under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These drills will also have a counterterrorism focus, and will include fellow SCO members India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
That same month, Russia has big plans for other massive drills thousands of miles away in Eastern Europe.
Starting on September 10, another set of exercises called “Zapad” will take in Belarus. The drills are set to involve some 12,800 troops, mostly from Belarus, and will include 2,500 Russian units from the Western Military District and 50 from Kazakhstan’s contribution to the Collective Rapid Reaction Force of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance that includes all three countries as well as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
“The Zapad-2021 joint strategic drills are a defensive exercise that reaffirms the course of the Republic of Belarus towards strengthening regional security and the commitment to allied obligations with the Russian Federation,” Chief of the Belarusian General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister Viktor Gulevich said during a briefing Thursday.
The exercises come amid intensified Western criticism of longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose opposition has contested its 2019 election and sought international support. Moscow has vowed to support Minsk in the event that unrest should threaten their Union State.
Their joint exercises next month will be “based on the scenario of the emergence of a crisis situation of growth and the emergence of conflict related to the growing activity of illegal armed groups, separatist and international terrorist organizations with external support.”
The emergence of unrest in Afghanistan has Moscow doubling down on its Central Military District commitments to partners in Central Asia. New headaches have manifested for the Southern Military District over renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, and the expansion of the United States’ military might in Europe and the Asia-Pacific has presented broader strategic concerns for Russia.
Those concerns are only exacerbated by a worsening state of relations between Moscow and the West, especially since the 2014 political unrest in Ukraine that saw Russia intervene directly to secure interests in Crimea. Russia later annexed Crimea from Ukraine after a referendum disputed by the U.S. and European allies, who also accuse Moscow of sponsoring a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
The fallout led to a bolstering of the U.S.-led, 30-state NATO military alliance, a Cold War-era mutual defense pact that has expanded east incorporating former Soviet republics over the past three decades since the collapse of the USSR. Both Ukraine and Georgia, another ex-Soviet country that has turned to the West amid fears of Russian aggression, have sought to join NATO.
That leaves Belarus as the sole Russian ally on the Western front, where the Lukashenko administration has accused nearby NATO members Latvia and Poland, along with the U.S., of orchestrating a plot to stir unrest.
“According to our assessments, the main role belongs to the U.S., who seeks to solve their geopolitical interests this way,” Ivan Tertel, chairman of the Belarusian State Security Committee, or KGB, said in a 44-minute segment of the “Belarus against the Color Revolution” documentary aired Wednesday by the state-run Belteleradio broadcaster.
“If we talk about the neighboring states, then Vilnius and Warsaw carry out the most aggressive policy towards the Republic of Belarus,” Tertel added. “We also see an unconstructive role, despite our brotherly relations with the Ukrainian people, with the current leadership of Ukraine.”
Tensions were heightened last month when President Joe Biden and top U.S. officials received Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s top challenger, in Washington. The White House issued a warning to the Belarusian president following Tsikhanouskaya’s meeting with national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“Mr. Sullivan conveyed American support for the people of Belarus and respect for the courage and determination of the opposition, including Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya, in the struggle for democracy and human rights,” according to a readout. “The United States, together with partners and allies, will continue to hold the Lukashenka regime accountable for its actions, including through the imposition of sanctions.”
Back in Belarus, Lukashenko warned he may seek direct Russian military support should such provocations continue.
“If it is necessary for the security of the Union State that we are building, for the security of Belarus and Russia to deploy here all the armed forces with all types of weapons, they will be deployed here immediately,” Lukashenko said during a meeting last Friday, noting that “there is no need” at present for such a request.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also criticized Biden’s decision to meet with Tsikhanouskaya at the time, with spokesperson Maria Zakharova accusing the U.S. of having “a habit of unceremoniously interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states, including supporting non-systemic opposition.”
Given the frictions with the West, much of Russia’s concerns revolve around its European borders, and an increasing eastward focus by the U.S. and NATO has prompted Moscow to once again pay attention to its Pacific frontier.
Russia has never signed a World War II peace treaty with its Japanese neighbor, but the two maintain friendly relations. Still, Washington’s decision to sell Tokyo advanced anti-missile capabilities has compounded existing fears over such U.S. weapons already deployed among other U.S. allies in Eastern Europe.
The result has been a race for new, state-of-the-art Russian capabilities to thwart what the Kremlin views as a global missile shield being erected along Russia’s borders.
“We have been confronted with certain steps by the United States and NATO that have actually impaired the existing parity: this relates to creating ballistic missile defense positioning areas, deploying interceptor missile systems in Romania and other countries in the close vicinity to our borders,” Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said last month, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.
Moscow contends such defense systems could also be used to attack.
“These are the systems that can also launch strike missiles,” Peskov said at the time. “That is, all these steps have been taken to dismantle the exiting parity. This has required measures to ensure Russia’s security and guarantee the continuation of the existing parity. This is what has been done.”
Such developments, accompanied by a deterioration in diplomatic relations with Washington, have prompted Moscow to fortify its strategic partnership with Beijing. The two top U.S. rivals today tout better bilateral relations than ever before, including expanding ties in the political, economic and defense sectors.
This relationship and the uptick in joint exercises held by China and Russia were noted in NATO’s latest joint communique adopted in June amid Biden’s first international trip as president.
The document warned that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”
China’s rapid ascendence on the world stage has prompted many in Washington to prioritize this theater over the longstanding concerns with regards to Russia.
The U.S. leader said Putin “has a real problem, he’s sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else,” something that “makes him even more dangerous, in my view.”
As for Xi, whom Biden said he has spent more time with than any other world leader during his time as vice president, the Chinese leader “is deadly earnest about becoming the most powerful military force in the world, as well as the largest, the most prominent economy in the world by the mid-40s, the 2040s.”
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Bikantov took the remarks as a sign of desperation “based on an erroneous and distorted message.”
“The objective reality, which many in Washington do not want to see, testifies to the opposite,” Bikantov told reporters Thursday. “America’s comfortable hegemony is becoming a thing of the past amid the strengthening of the geopolitical positions of Russia and China.”