Last year, Russia’s held a massive series of war games they refer to as “Zapad,” or “West.” The exercises, which usually happen along Europe’s eastern flank every four years, always draw NATO’s attention, in large part because Russia has long been openly dishonest about the size and scope of the drills. In 2011, Russia signed the Vienna Document, which requires that they open their drills up to third-party observers any time they gather more than 13,000 troops for a single exercise, and other nations like the United States agree to do so in kind. The intent behind the agreement was simple: if you’re amassing a hundred thousand troops just outside the Baltics, allowing NATO observers to be present for the drill will alleviate assumptions about a pending invasion.
In order to prevent NATO observers from attending these drills, Russia and ally Belarus have made a happen of openly lying about the level of participation they’ll see from both nation’s militaries. In 2013, for instance, Russian officials were clear that there would be no more than 13,000 combined troops from both nations taking part in the exercises — but satellite imaging taken during the drills showed somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 actually showed up. For European states still reeling from Russia’s 2014 military annexation of Crimea, seeing a sea of nearly a hundred thousand Russian troops just beyond their borders is bound to make them a bit nervous. Last year, when Zapad came to Belarus again, the overall level of participation was fewer than 2013, but still eclipsed their stated projections by nearly a factor of four.
If the reduced turnout at last year’s Zapad left any American defense officials sighing with relief, that may have been premature. While Zapad proved to be smaller than past iterations, Russia’s next massive series of war games promises to be significantly larger, and as is sure to ruffle even more feathers, will see participation from the only nation on the planet that represents a near-peer diplomatic and military threat to the United States: China.
Following the four your rotation that led to last year’s Zapad (West), this year’s drills are called Vostok-2018, which means “East-2018.” It is set to take place in central and Eastern Russia and, according to statements made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, it will absolutely dwarf even 2013’s massive Zapad drills. According to Shoigu’s statements on Tuesday, the Vostok-2018 drills will include some 300,000 troops, 1,000 military aircraft, two of Russia’s naval fleets and all of the nation’s “airborne units.” While neither Russia nor China have offered any indication toward the message they hope these massive drills will send, it’s hard to dismiss concerns that Russia and China are developing a higher level of military interoperability aimed at the Pacific, an increasingly contested region thanks in large part to China’s aggressive expansion throughout the South China Sea.