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Russia Launches Massive War Games Blitz

No one seems to be paying much attention, but in the seas off the coast of Japan, the wilderness of Siberia, and little towns north of Moscow, the Russian military is currently engaged in a massive training blitz. On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a snap military exercise in the country’s Far East, deploying ...

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

No one seems to be paying much attention, but in the seas off the coast of Japan, the wilderness of Siberia, and little towns north of Moscow, the Russian military is currently engaged in a massive training blitz.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a snap military exercise in the country’s Far East, deploying 160,000 troops, 1,000 tanks, 130 aircraft, and 70 ships. If those sound like big numbers, that’s because they are — the exercise has been described as Russia’s largest since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But that’s not the whole story. Last week, Russia engaged in an unprecedented naval exercise with China that included live-fire drills and the crown jewel of the Russian Navy’s Pacific fleet — the guided-missile cruiser Varyag. And last Tuesday, Russia convened 500 soldiers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization — the body that emerged out of the Commonwealth of Independent States — for a theatrical counterterror exercise at a training center north of Moscow. Taken together, the three training operations represent a remarkable flurry of military activity — one that has put nearly every component of Russia’s armed forces under the spotlight.

By far the largest of these war games is the current one in the Far East, which has focused on rapid deployment and tested the army’s logistical abilities. Some 100 tanks made a nearly 700-mile train journey to southeastern Siberia, near the Mongolian and Chinese borders, and some 562 train cars have transported 320 tons of equipment. "The peculiarity [of this drill] is that [although] we deployed here 24 hours … it hasn’t yet been disclosed to us where we will move from here and what we will be ordered to accomplish," tank commander Dmitry Manyukin told Russian television — an indication that Russian military leaders are issuing new orders over the course of the drill and probing soldiers’ ability to respond to new sets of directives.

In ordering the exercise on Friday, Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that "special attention should be paid to … the mobility of large military units." And in an indication of how seriously he takes the exercise, Putin plans to personally oversee its final phase. After ascending to the top of Russia’s Defense Ministry in November 2012, Shoigu has made these snap military exercises something of a hallmark of his time in office, carrying out similar activities on the Black Sea in March. More broadly, Shoigu is engaged in an effort to modernize the army, improve its mobility, and strengthen its ability to respond to hot spots on its borders.

Here’s video of the logistics operation Shoigu put in place this weekend:

And here’s how Russian television is covering the spectacle, presenting a military rapidly kicking into action — and with some nice explosions for effect:

Meanwhile on Russia’s Pacific coast, the country’s Navy has been engaged in a major naval drill with their Chinese counterparts. Russia and China are not allies, and this type of military cooperation between the two countries has little precedent (in fact, it has been characterized as China’s largest deployment ever for training with another country). In addition to the Russian guided-missile cruiser and a Russian nuclear submarine, the Chinese fielded seven warships, including a guided-missile destroyer. "This is our strongest lineup ever in a joint naval drill," Maj. General Yang Junfei, the Chinese fleet commander, told the New York Times. "Our forces come from two fleets — the North Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet — and include seven ships, three helicopters and one special warfare unit."

The Chinese Navy, which has been flexing its muscles in recent years, put its rivals in the Pacific — primarily Japan and the United States — on notice at the end of last week’s exercise by sailing a group of warships through the narrow strait that separates Japan and Russia. The route took the Chinese warships on a costly detour around Japan, when they could have simply sailed back to port through the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. But the maneuver also sent a clear message to China’s competitors that its Navy feels comfortable projecting power far from its coastlines.

Here’s some footage from the joint Russian-Chinese exercise:

To complete the trifecta of Russian military training exercises, a group of Special Weapons and Tactics teams partnered early last week with a total of about 500 soldiers from neighboring countries to conduct mock counterterror operations as part of the CSTO’s rapid reaction force.

Complete with mock explosions and made-for-television helicopter car chases, the entire thing was pretty theatrical:

To review: Within the last week or so — as we’ve focused on Edward Snowden’s quest for asylum and Putin’s search for a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea — Russia has deployed nearly every facet of its armed forces. Its ships and submarines have rumbled with their Chinese counterparts in highly contested East Pacific waters. Its tanks have rolled across the Siberian tundra. Its special forces have retaken a town from a group of imaginary exercises.

The message is pretty unmistakable: Don’t mess with this Russian bear.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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