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Russia joined by allies in Vostok military drills

Andreas Noll
September 1, 2022

Despite the war in Ukraine, Russia is sending tens of thousands of troops east to participate in the Vostok 2022 military exercises. They are intended as a clear signal to the West.

This screen grab obtained from a handout video released by the Russian Defence Ministry on August 29, 2022, shows Chinese soldiers marching along a railway platform
Russia's Defense Ministry released this video of Chinese troops arriving for the military drills in the far eastImage: RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/AFP

After weeks of preparations, Russia has launched the Vostok 2022 (East 2022) military drills. Over the next few days, the air force, paratroopers and other units will be testing their combat readiness across 13 military training grounds in Russia, with exercises held in Siberia, the Far Eastern Federal District, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan.

While Russia's leadership is keeping the exact number of troops involved a secret, some 50,000 soldiers, 140 airplanes and 60 naval ships are thought to be participating in Vostok 2022. This year's exercises are bound to be smaller than those of 2018, however, when Moscow dispatched some 300,000 soldiers for drills — the highest number ever to be mobilized since the end of the Cold War.

A train with Chinese military hardware
Chinese military hardware has been deployed to Russia for the drillsImage: RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/AFP

Numerous other nations are joining the large-scale exercises, drawing broad international attention. The messaging is clear: Russia wants to signal to the West it still has strong, loyal allies and can hold major drills despite the war in Ukraine.

China: Rival turned partner

The People's Republic of China is Russia's strongest partner at this year's Vostok drills. Back in 2018, Beijing sent several thousand soldiers to join the exercises and thereby underscore its solidarity with Moscow. Even though China was seen as Russia's strategic rival, Chinese figures were involved on all levels of the 2018 Vostok drills. In years prior, Moscow had partnered up with many states that were once under Soviet control.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine did not prompt Beijing to pull out of this year's drills — on the contrary. According to China's Defense Ministry, "the goal is to develop more practical and friendly collaboration with the armies of participating states, enhance the level of strategic cooperation among participants, and strengthen our ability to respond to various security threats." Earlier this week, Chinese troops began arriving in Primorsky Krai, in Russia's Far Eastern Federal District.

Soldiers pose during an opening ceremony for the Vostok 2022 drills
Soldiers posed during an opening ceremony for the Vostok 2022 drillsImage: Russian Defence Ministry/REUTERS

This is not their first drill since the start of the war in Ukraine. In May, Russia and China sent bomber planes on joint exercises around Japan and South Korea. Indeed, in early February, both states pledged their friendship would have "no limits."

That said, China has not actively supported Russian forces in Ukraine with troops or heavy military equipment.

India: A balancing act

India, like China, has avoided condemning Russia's attack on Ukraine. This is because India is attempting a balancing act whereby it provides humanitarian aid for Ukraine, yet also maintains close cooperation with Russia. India has been buying large quantities of Russian oil, for instance, since the West imposed its sanctions on the country.

Delhi is also engaged in military cooperation with the United States. Just recently, Indian soldiers and US special forces trained together near the Chinese border.

Indian Brahmos missiles, developed with Russia, on display in New Delhi
Indian Brahmos missiles, developed with Russia, were on display in New Delhi in 2018Image: Partha Sarkar/Xinhua/IMAGO

Several weeks ago, India media outlets began reporting on Indian troops slated to participate in Vostok 2022. Russia and India share a long history of arms sales and military collaboration. Rumors have surfaced that India may want to buy a Russian hypersonic long-distance bomber.

Even so, India's contribution to Vostok 2022 will be limited. Media reports indicate that no more than 75 military personnel are expected to join the drills. Last year, India dispatched forces to Russia's Zapad exercises in the country's west. 

Belarus: Under Russia's thumb

In winter 2022, Belarus served as a staging ground for Russian troops ahead of their invasion of neighboring Ukraine. Russia at the time claimed its 100,000 troops were stationed there only as part of a joint military exercise. Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has so far not sent his own troops into Ukraine.

It is, however, sending a small contingent of soldiers to this year's Vostok drills. The Belarus Defense Ministry said no more than 250 soldiers from a mechanized brigade would join the drills.

Tajikistan and Mongolia: Ongoing dependence on Russia

It's hardly s surprise that Tajikistan and Mongolia are also participating in the large-scale exercises. Both nations, after all, maintain close military ties with Moscow, and depend on Russia economically. Mongolia's participation may also stem from its desire to establish and maintain good relations with its other neighbor, China.

Aside from the political symbolism of their involvement, Tajikistan and Mongolia will also be eager to see Russian military hardware in practice.

Taiwan: Renewed fear of war

This article was originally published in German.