Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Economic Maneuvers

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Thirteen years ago, when Moscow and Beijing agreed that Russia would start shipping arms to China, the announcement made waves around the world. Military analysts began talking about the possibility of a new alliance between Moscow and Beijing that would take an anti-American tack.

Now these predictions appear to be coming true. On Thursday, Russia and China will commence their first joint military exercises, in which around 10,000 soldiers and officers will participate.

The Russian military's top brass insists that this is nothing unusual. They point out that Russia regularly conducts exercises with troops from other nations along the Pacific rim, such as the United States and Japan. This year, for example, the military also plans to hold joint maneuvers with India.

This is certainly true, but experts have noted that the scenario created for the Russian-Chinese war games, called Peace Mission 2005, does not correspond to the forces and resources involved in the maneuvers. The scenario has been put together in a way designed not to upset other countries: In an unspecified third country on the Shandong peninsula, an ethnic conflict erupts, which in part involves terrorist attacks. China and Russia are given a mandate by the United Nations to conduct an operation and separate the two warring sides. The maneuvers will culminate in a landing by a company of marines from the Pacific Fleet and a company of paratroopers from the 76th Airborne Division.

This is all well and good, but in addition to the paratroopers and marines, the exercises will involve several long-distance Tu-22M bombers and two strategic Tu-95 bombers, as well as diesel-powered submarines. It is hard to imagine just what these strategic bombers are doing on a peacekeeping mission. Tu-22Ms and Tu-95s in naval contexts are designed to conduct air strikes using nuclear cruise missiles and to hit enemy aircraft carrier formations. That the maneuvers also involve long-distance fighter jets can only mean one thing. Along with the peacekeeping operation, Russia and China will also move to block any other country's navy from reaching the conflict zone. In this case, the peacekeeping mission is transformed into something resembling a standard operation to take over the third country's territory.

It is not hard to guess which territory authorities have in mind. It is none other than Taiwan. One of Beijing's most important foreign policy goals is to return the island to the continental Chinese fold. The People's Republic of China has threatened to use force against those it calls "Taiwan separatists." In a white paper on national defense and security published in late 2004, the Chinese authorities stated that, "Should the Taiwan authorities go so far as to make a reckless attempt that constitutes a major incident of 'Taiwan independence,' the Chinese people and armed forces will resolutely and thoroughly crush it at any cost."

However, military pressure on Taipei has not proven highly effective in the past due to the security guarantees the United States has provided Taiwan. But now, Russian bombers will take part in the coming military exercises, planes that could theoretically hold off the U.S. Navy.

Naturally, this does not necessarily mean that the Chinese are ready and willing to set up a formal military alliance with Russia.

In this complicated war game -- during which potential threats to the United States, China's biggest trading partner, are being meted out with great care -- maneuvers that can be interpreted in a variety of ways become all the more important. In any case, it is clear why Peace Mission 2005 is useful for China.

It is a lot less clear what these military exercises will do for Russia. It is not clear what exactly Moscow stands to gain from war games that present an apparent threat to the United States, a country with which Russia has a strategic partnership, as Russian authorities have announced on numerous occasions.

Yet, there is some clear-cut economic reasoning behind Russia's participation. China is the largest purchaser of Russian military hardware. Every year, it buys around $1 billion in weaponry from Russia. However, it seems that the economic potential of Russian military exports has dried up. This is because Moscow is still selling the Chinese weapons systems that were developed in the early and mid-1980s. No matter how much you update this equipment, it has nonetheless fallen hopelessly behind the times.

Beijing is in no big hurry to sign off on any new defense contracts. Thus, Russia is putting the Tu-22M and the Tu-95 up for sale, though in the past it resisted selling these planes, which carry nuclear warheads. From this perspective, the war games are an excellent way of demonstrating the bombers' military might to Chinese military officials.

The military reasons why Russia is engaging in joint maneuvers with China are far more vague and nebulous. It seems that Russian military policy increasingly reflects the armed forces' inferiority complex. Without the resources to play a significant role in the Asian arena, Russia doing everything it can to make it seem as if it is an active participant in the region's affairs. In the process, Russia's leaders have resorted to anti-American saber rattling out of old habit.

For example, Russia's national security would only be enhanced if the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan were finally to defeat the remnants of the Taliban. Yet at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, President Vladimir Putin suggested that the delegates discuss when coalition forces should be required to withdraw from military bases located in Central Asia. Not only do these bases supply the troops fighting in Afghanistan, but they also support stability in Central Asia itself, something which is also very much in Russia's interest.

In this instance, the desire to prove how important Russia is seems to have gotten the upper hand over common sense. Russia's participation in Peace Mission 2005 apparently has very similar motives.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.