Russia is planning to hold what Moscow has called the largest military exercises since 1981, to include joint training with the Chinese military and involve simulated nuclear weapons strikes, U.S. defense officials say.

As reported by the Washington Free Beacon, China will send more than 3,200 People’s Liberation Army troops along with 900 pieces of military equipment and hardware and 30 combat aircraft to Russia for the exercises, which have been dubbed Vostok-18, or East-18, according to the Chinese Defense Ministry.

The exercises reportedly will involve live fires, fire-and-maneuver, and counterattacks. The exercises, which are scheduled Sept. 11-15, will also include forces from Mongolia for the first time, officials said.

Though Mongolia was aligned with the former Soviet Union until the USSR dissolved in 1990, recently the enclave has sought closer ties to the U.S. though it is situated between Russia and China.

One Pentagon official noted that the Vostok war games are going to be watched more closely by U.S. intelligence agencies due to the nuclear weapons aspect of the drills. “It’s their strategic messaging,” the official said of both Russia and China, the Free Beacon reported.

“For nearly 20 years Vostok has been the Russian proving exercise for developing its new ‘escalate to de-escalate’ tactical nuclear doctrine involving the use of new, very small nuclear weapons fired mainly by artillery,” said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

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“Russia’s new doctrine of rapidly escalating future conflicts by resorting to nuclear arms shortly after the outbreak of hostilities is a major concern for the Pentagon. The doctrine has been cited by Pentagon officials as one of the reasons Moscow was identified as a major strategic competitor in the new national defense strategy,” the Free Beacon reported.

“The doctrine is considered destabilizing and also is leading the United States to develop its own arsenal of smaller nuclear weapons. The Pentagon revealed in its latest annual report on the Chinese military that China is also developing new, small nuclear weapons,” the site continued.

U.S. defense officials noted that China’s participation in the massive war games is an added concern.

Fisher said the number of forces China is sending indicates the training will “allow the PLA to learn a great deal about the Russian state of the art in combined warfare tactics, which is now an intense focus for PLA strategy development to prepare for war against Taiwan and the United States.”

Both nations seek to improve their capability to deploy, ground, naval, and air forces jointly over short and long distances.

“This is the largest armed forces training event since the Zapad-81 maneuvers, it has acquired the status of an international exercise and is of unprecedented scale both in terms of spatial scope as well as the strength of military command and control entities, troops, and forces involved,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said.

The 1981 Zapad-81 war games involved more than 150,000 troops, while Moscow’s most recent Vostok exercise in 2014 involved in excess of 155,000 troops.

The Russian defense minister said the five-day drills will be held in the Russian Far East and Siberia. China announced that the exercises will take place at Russia’s Tsugol training range in the Trans-Baikal region, which is situated north of Mongolia’s eastern border with Russia.

“Politically it is very significant,” Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon policymaker who specializes in Russian affairs, told the Free Beacon.

“We have no details on the supposed scenario yet,” he said. “However, in this type of exercise, the very fact of a joint exercise may be more important than the exact details of the announced scenario, which may be very real. Putin will probably give China what it wants out of the exercise. That could involve a threat to Taiwan.”

Analyst comment: As the U.S. economy strengthens and grows and Congress continues to appropriate billions more in defense spending for warfighting, systems upgrades, research and development, additional forces, and more warships, Russia — with an economy a fraction of the size of the U.S. economy — cannot hope to match that level of spending.

Meanwhile, China, while continuing to experience unprecedented economic growth, is pouring more resources than ever into modernizing its military, and while Beijing is catching up in some areas, it lags in many others, primarily fighting experience. This exercise will provide Chinese forces with their first near-real-world combined arms operational experience.

Both countries are revisionist powers, meaning they seek to disrupt the unipolar world in which the United States is the dominant power. But neither of them can do so alone. So increasingly, Beijing and Moscow are forging deeper military ties because it is in their self-interests to do so. While once there were suspicions and tension between them (they fought an undeclared seven-month border war in 1969), those tensions gradually decreased over the decades and now Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping appear to realize that the best way both of them can attain their strategic objectives is to combine their resources.

That presents major strategic challenges to the United States, which does not have the resources or manpower to take on Russia and China together (and at present, given European leaders’ political disagreements with the Trump administration, there is no guarantee that NATO members would risk destruction and join the U.S., despite the mutual defense provision in the charter). 

China’s near-term objective is asserting control over Taiwan, which Beijing has long considered little more than a breakaway province. Secondarily, Xi seeks to exert outsized Chinese control over the South China Sea and its lucrative trade routes. As for Russia, Putin seeks to check NATO and the United States in Europe as he has near-term territorial ambitions to bring former Soviet satellite states back under Moscow’s control, including the Baltics and even Ukraine. 

The U.S. has a mutual defense agreement with Taiwan; obviously China and Russia know that. A move by China against Taiwan, backed by Russia, would test President Trump’s will to enforce it. Doing nothing isn’t a realistic option, though. But any action he takes would carry great risk for the entire world since all powers involved have nuclear weapons.

But the same is true for any action that China and Russia take. What would Russia’s role be — tying down U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, forcing the U.S. to spread its forces and divide its power? If Moscow’s quick-strike with low-yield nuclear weapons isn’t enough to guarantee a victory, is Moscow prepared for a longer fight? Can China hold Taiwan if Beijing’s forces take the island?

Would Russia and China risk blowing up the global economic order they, too, depend on for survival? They might if they believed they could reorder the global power structure and create a tri-polar world in which they had an equal say in how the planet should be run.

On its current economic and military trajectory, the United States is only going to get stronger. For now, China does not have the power projection to invade Taiwan, but it is building the capacity to do so. Russia, meanwhile, has the strength to keep NATO pinned down in Europe, along with sizeable U.S. forces, but may not have the staying power necessary for a protracted conflict. 

All of this means the window of opportunity for China and for Russia is closing.

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