Two Eastern superpowers, Russia and China, joined forces for the show of strength in Operation Vostok 18 – and a British intelligence said the message was clear to see
Vladimir Putin put on a chilling show of strength as Russia linked up with China to launch its biggest military exercise in almost four decades.
Moscow and Beijing are partners in Operation Vostok 18 – a mock invasion in which 300,000 troops backed by fighter jets and warships will blaze eastwards across seven times zones in just seven days.
Analysts believe the Russian President is using the exercise, which comes amid rising political tensions with the West, to send the with ease and swiftly subdue Europe.
More than 300,000 Russian “Red Army” infantrymen have joined up with 4,000 Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops to tackle a 5,000-mile battlefield.
The area the army will cover is thought to be the size of India.
Moscow has sent two fleets from its Navy to support the exercise, along with 1,000 warplanes.
Some 36,000 armoured tanks are also involved and hardware includes “lung-busting” superheat explosion missiles.
China’s government confirmed it has sent 24 battle helicopters and six jets. Mongolian forces have also been sent to join the war game, which is being spearheaded by Spetsnaz special forces and the GRU – the spy agency that carried out the novichok strike on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March.
It is even feared Moscow’s “nuke-capable” missiles will be tested to see how they fire, sparking fears it could be the prelude to a confrontation between East and West.
A British military intelligence source told the Daily Mirror: “In this exercise they are heading east – if they headed west they would going towards Europe.
“But the message is clear to see. Putin is signalling to the lear to see. Putin is signalling to the West that he could roll-up Europe in a matter of days, despite the presence of NATO defences throughout.
“This is about projecting power and military strength and is as much about showing it off to supporters at home as it is to the West.”
It is believed much of the exercise will be carried out beyond the range of spy satellites and other British GCHQ listening systems and American National Security Agency observation methods.
The exercise kicked off as Putin held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at an economic forum in Russian port city Vladivostok.
Relations between Moscow and Beijing have long been marked by mutual wariness, with Russian nationalists warning of encroaching Chinese influence in the country’s mineral-rich far east.
But Russia pivoted towards China following sanctions by the West over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and trade links between the two have blossomed since.
Xi, whose country is now locked in an escalating trade row with the US, was reported by the Kremlin as saying: “In a rapidly changing international situation with growing instability and unpredictability, cooperation between Russia and China takes on more importance.
“Together with the international community we will advance political solutions to problems, conflicts, unflinchingly defend the aims and principles of the UN charter, jointly oppose unilateralism and trade protectionism, and advance a new type of international relations.”
Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian army Colonel and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank, said: “With Vostok 18 Russia sends a message that it regards the US as a potential enemy and China as a potential ally.
“China, by sending a PLA element to train with Russia, is signalling that US pressure is pushing it towards much closer military cooperation with Moscow.”
The Kremlin released photos of troop carriers being driven on to trains, and huge columns of tanks, armoured cars, warships and assault helicopters heading to the war game’s front line.
Fighters were seen taking off from Russian bases in the opening stages of the operation – which even involved a naval build-up of Russia’s Northern and Pacific fleets to test how closely warships and infantry can work together.
Bruce Jones, a Jane’s Defence magazine Russia analyst, said: “The area being covered is absolutely enormous – the size of India.
“Russia has in recent years given its army advanced equipment, tested in Syria and the Ukraine. It is concerning because they are practising large-scale wartime mobilisation and even calling up reserves.”
The location of the main training range for Vostok 18, 3,000 miles east of Moscow, means it is likely to be watched closely by Japan and North and South Korea as well as by China and Mongolia.
Putin, who is commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces, is expected to observe the exercises alongside Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is overseeing them.
The head of the Russian general staff, General Valery Gerasimo, reportedly said Vostok 18 would be planned and prepared on Tuesday and Wednesday, with operations starting on Thursday and lasting five days.
He said its main purpose was to check training levels, which can only be assessed only in an exercise of proper scale.
‘Send a message back to Putin’
– by Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of forces in Afghanistan
These exercises should be deeply concerning to the British Government and military commanders.
Russia is extending her influence all over the Middle East and into its neighbouring territories and this has a direct effect on our security.
We need urgently to bolster our Army, Navy and RAF because years of cuts have left all three weaker than they were throughout the Cold War.
This is not just about having the numbers to do operations abroad and to defend British interests but also to take a tough stance.
Strong forces and with the evident will to use them are more likely to deter an aggressor and avoid the need to fight.
We need to show Putin any strength he thinks he is projecting can easily and calmly be matched with a strong will and an armed forces to back it.