Just weeks before Russia begins major war games already causing great alarm among its Baltic neighbors, the country's military is showing its friendlier face. Smoke grenades and stunt guns take the place of live ammunition at the International Army Games in Siberia, where military units from across the world compete to show off their skills.
"The summer in Siberia is just the same as the summer in Zimbabwe" says Major Justin Jo, head of his country's delegation at the latest round of International Army Games. While the military drill is familiar, he admits communication is a "challenge." The latest round of the International Army Games brings army scouts from seven countries to a field in the middle of Siberia. There they fight it out for the fastest time round a series of obstacle courses.
Breaking the isolation
But why go to all the trouble of flying troops from three continents to Siberia for what in sporting terms would be deemed an international friendly?
The Army Games, now in their third year, are the brainchild of the Russian military. The more than two dozen stages are held in different locations, not just in Russia, but also in participating neighboring states, among them China and Kazakhstan. These 'military Olympics' were dreamed up just a year after relations between Russia and the West went into freefall after the annexation of Crimea. The games are about showing that Moscow is not out in the cold. Starting with China and Russia's ex-Soviet neighbors, the participation in the competition has rapidly expanded to include as unlikely co-competitors as Iran and Israel, as well as NATO member, Greece.
While not all the nations taking part are represented in every competition - the Israelis and Iranians, for instance, make sure they do not compete side by side - the symbolism of their participation is crucial. Russia has no replacement for the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact, no equivalent to NATO. In recent years Moscow's closest ally Belarus has consistently failed to back it up in the Ukraine crisis. These games provide an opportunity to demonstrate that Russia has international partners and that Western efforts to isolate Russia have failed.
Crossing the 'NATO fence'
More than 20 obstacles stand between the scouts at the start of the kilometer-long course. Mock ruins, barbed wire barricades and even a standard NATO fence line the route. A three-page protocol sets out an elaborate choreography, detailing the order in which the course obstacles have to be taken, the commands to be used and the number of smoke grenades permitted at each turn. Judges carrying flags make sure no one cuts corners.
All of a sudden 'enemy' snipers emerge from the long grass, startling the journalists trotting alongside the participants at just a few meters' distance as the serious sound effects get going. But it's not just about the shooting. The scouts have to prove their mettle at bringing down the enemy's communications in truly 20th century fashion - climbing telephone poles and sabotaging railway lines.
Making sense of it all
To the untrained eye not all of the stages of the competition are immediately comprehensible, as soldiers in gas masks emerge forlornly from concrete pipes, while the orange clouds of the smoke grenades clear. For all the military pomp, this stage of the Army Games feels a lot like a school sports day, with plenty of waiting around, occasional bursts of action, interspersed by polite clapping from the small crowd of spectators in the distance.
In the end it's the Russian hosts who come out on top, finishing the course in just 38 minutes, less than a minute ahead of the second-placed Chinese. The slowest teams take over half an hour longer.
For all the antagonism that accompanied the birth of the Army Games, the man in charge of the Novosibirsk stage, General Vladimir Marusin says the competition is open to all. "We'd love to see how well prepared the Americans are, the Germans, the Brits and the French… We'd love to see them here, someday it'll happen."
For now, that looks like a distant prospect. The only American present, a military attache from the Moscow embassy, told his host that he would soon be leaving Russia more than a year ahead of schedule, as the Kremlin expels hundreds of diplomatic staff in response to new US sanctions.