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Russia and China launch Vostok war games – but with far smaller numbers amid Ukraine invasion

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Russia and China today launched their week-long Vostok war games – but on a far smaller scale than when they were last held in 2018, reflecting the strain on Vladimir Putin’s forces as they struggle to make headway on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.

Moscow insisted last month that its capacity to stage the military exercise would in no way be affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But the 50,000 Russian troops that are said to be taking part in the Vostok 2022 war games are just a fraction of the 300,000 that drilled alongside those from China and Mongolia four years ago.

Russia’s defence ministry said 140 military aircraft, 60 warships and over 5,000 items of military hardware will be deployed – a marked decline on the 1,000 aircraft and 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles that were sent into the 2018 manoeuvres.

The smaller scale of this year’s Vostok war games reflects the major losses that Russian troops and artillery have suffered in Ukraine since the invasion began six months ago. 

‘This is going to be the smallest strategic-level exercise in years because the entire ground forces potential is engaged in operations in Ukraine. So the exercise will have to be very small,’ said Konrad Muzyka, director of the Rochan military consultancy based in Poland.

Russia and China today launched their week-long Vostok war games – but on a far smaller scale than when they were last held in 2018, reflecting the strain on Putin’s forces as they struggle to make headway on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine

Chinese soldiers carry their national flag as they march during the Vostok 2020 military games in Russia on Thursday

Chinese soldiers carry their national flag as they march during the Vostok 2020 military games in Russia on Thursday 

Service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region, Russia, on Wednesday

Service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region, Russia, on Wednesday 

Moscow insisted last month that its capacity to stage the military exercise would in no way be affected by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But the 50,000 Russian troops that are said to be taking part in the Vostok 2022 war games are just a fraction of the 300,000 that drilled alongside those from China and Mongolia four years ago

Moscow insisted last month that its capacity to stage the military exercise would in no way be affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the 50,000 Russian troops that are said to be taking part in the Vostok 2022 war games are just a fraction of the 300,000 that drilled alongside those from China and Mongolia four years ago

2018 VOSTOK WAR GAMES:

2018 VOSTOK WAR GAMES: 

2018 VOSTOK WAR GAMES: Russian soldiers clutching Kalashnikov rifles stand in formation to hear Putin speak during the Vostok games

2018 VOSTOK WAR GAMES: Russian soldiers clutching Kalashnikov rifles stand in formation to hear Putin speak during the Vostok games

Still, the exercises will be closely watched by regional powers such as Japan and South Korea as a significant show of force by Russia and China, which joined up in Vostok 2018 and will take part again in drills on land and at sea.

The exercises begin today at seven firing ranges in Russia’s Far East and the Sea of Japan and will continue until September.

Russia said its Pacific Fleet and China’s navy would take part in ‘joint practical actions to defend maritime communications and areas of maritime economic activity’ in the Sea of Japan.

Russia’s armed forces news channel Zvezda on Monday posted video of Chinese troops unloading armoured vehicles delivered to Russia by rail.

Russia has drawn heavily on units from the Far East to reinforce its war effort in Ukraine, thousands of miles to the west, where its forces have sustained heavy losses in men and equipment in the six months since its invasion while occupying about a fifth of its neighbour’s territory.

Britain’s defence minister Ben Wallace said this month that Russia has lost up to 80,000 troops since crossing the Ukrainian border on February 24, while a top Ukrainian military intelligence official cited reports of morale and physical fatigue in Russian ranks due to Moscow’s ‘exhausted’ resource base.

Experts have questioned Russia’s claim that 50,000 Russian troops will take part in the games.

Muzyka said he estimated that 70-80 per cent of units from Russia’s eastern military district had been deployed to Ukraine, making it ‘impossible’ for Moscow to free up 50,000 men for exercises. He said a more plausible figure would be 10,000 to 15,000.

‘It’s just Russia pretending everything is fine and they still have the capability to launch a large-scale military exercise with China. But in reality I think the scope of this exercise, especially from a ground force perspective, is going to be very, very limited,’ he said.

The eastern military district includes part of Siberia and has its headquarters in Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border.

The exercises begin today at seven firing ranges in Russia's Far East and the Sea of Japan and will continue until September

The exercises begin today at seven firing ranges in Russia’s Far East and the Sea of Japan and will continue until September

Russian service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region on Wednesday

Russian service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region on Wednesday 

Service members pose for a picture during a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region, Russia, on Wednesday

Service members pose for a picture during a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region, Russia, on Wednesday 

Mongolian servicemen preparing military vehicles for participation in Vostok 2022 maneuvers at the Sergeyevsky training ground in the Primorsky territory in the Russian Far East

Mongolian servicemen preparing military vehicles for participation in Vostok 2022 maneuvers at the Sergeyevsky training ground in the Primorsky territory in the Russian Far East

Armenian service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region, Russia, on Wednesday

Armenian service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region, Russia, on Wednesday 

Russia's defence ministry said 140 military aircraft, 60 warships and over 5,000 items of military hardware will be deployed - a marked decline on the 1,000 aircraft and 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles that were sent into the 2018 manoeuvres

Russia’s defence ministry said 140 military aircraft, 60 warships and over 5,000 items of military hardware will be deployed – a marked decline on the 1,000 aircraft and 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles that were sent into the 2018 manoeuvres

The war games were opened by deputy Russian Defence Minister Colonel-General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, in the absence of his boss Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is seen as being sidelined by Putin over war failures in Ukraine

The war games were opened by deputy Russian Defence Minister Colonel-General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, in the absence of his boss Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is seen as being sidelined by Putin over war failures in Ukraine

2018 VOSTOK WAR GAMES: Russian, Chinese and Mongolian flags fly alongside one-another as the countries put on a joint show of strength

2018 VOSTOK WAR GAMES: Russian, Chinese and Mongolian flags fly alongside one-another as the countries put on a joint show of strength

The war games were opened by deputy Russian Defence Minister Colonel-General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, in the absence of his boss Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is seen as being sidelined by Putin over war failures in Ukraine.

‘Today, soldiers and officers of ten states are standing in a single formation, and a total of 14 countries are taking part in the exercise,’ said Yevkurov.

‘Tens of thousands of servicemen and thousands of units of equipment are performing combat training missions according to a single plan at nine training grounds in real time.’

He said: ‘Exercises held within a coalition of states help formulate a common understanding regarding the organisation of forces’ training, their command and interaction at operative and tactical levels, as well as help strengthen friendship and combat partnership between servicemen.’

Another Kremlin deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin said: ‘The drills are not aimed against any particular state or military alliance and are purely of a defensive nature.’

The drills showcase increasing defence ties between Moscow and Beijing, which have grown stronger since Putin sent his troops into Ukraine on February 24.

The 50,000 Russian troops that are said to be taking part in the Vostok 2022 war games are just a fraction of the 300,000 that drilled alongside those from China and Mongolia four years ago

The 50,000 Russian troops that are said to be taking part in the Vostok 2022 war games are just a fraction of the 300,000 that drilled alongside those from China and Mongolia four years ago

Chinese service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region on Wednesday

Chinese service members take part in a ceremony opening Vostok 2022 military exercises at a firing ground in the far eastern Primorsky region on Wednesday 

Russia's defence ministry said the Vostok 2022 war games also involve military contingents and observers from Algeria, India, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria and the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Pictured: Algerian service members take part in a ceremony to open the military exercises on Wednesday

Russia’s defence ministry said the Vostok 2022 war games also involve military contingents and observers from Algeria, India, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria and the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Pictured: Algerian service members take part in a ceremony to open the military exercises on Wednesday 

hinese servicemen preparing Chinese military vehicles for unloading upon arrival the Sergeyevsky training ground in the Primorsky territory in the Russian Far East ahead of the war games

hinese servicemen preparing Chinese military vehicles for unloading upon arrival the Sergeyevsky training ground in the Primorsky territory in the Russian Far East ahead of the war games 

Russia's defence ministry said 140 military aircraft, 60 warships and over 5,000 items of military hardware will be deployed - a marked decline on the 1,000 aircraft and 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles that were sent into the 2018 manoeuvres

Russia’s defence ministry said 140 military aircraft, 60 warships and over 5,000 items of military hardware will be deployed – a marked decline on the 1,000 aircraft and 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles that were sent into the 2018 manoeuvres

2018 VOSTOK DRILLS: Russian armoured troop transports are seen against a backdrop of other military vehicles during the Vostok 2018 drills

2018 VOSTOK DRILLS: Russian armoured troop transports are seen against a backdrop of other military vehicles during the Vostok 2018 drills

China has refused to criticise Russia’s action, blaming the US and NATO for provoking Moscow, and has criticised punishing sanctions imposed on Moscow.

Russia has strongly backed China amid the tensions with Washington that followed a recent visit to Taiwan by US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Putin has drawn parallels between US support for Ukraine and Ms Pelosi’s trip, describing them as part of alleged efforts by Washington to foment global instability.

Alexander Gabuyev, a political analyst, said: ‘It’s very important for Beijing to show to the US that it has levers to pressure America and its global interests.

‘The joint manoeuvres with Moscow, including the naval drills, are intended to signal that if the pressure on Beijing continues it will have no other choice but to strengthen the military partnership with Russia. It will have a direct impact on the interests of the US and its allies, including Japan.’

The exercise continues a series of joint war games by Russia and China in recent years, including naval drills and patrols by long-range bombers over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.

Last year, Russian troops for the first time deployed to Chinese territory for joint manoeuvres.

China’s participation in the drills ‘aims to deepen pragmatic and friendly co-operation between the militaries of the participating countries, enhance the level of strategic co-operation among all participating parties, and enhance the ability to jointly respond to various security threats,’ Chinese Defence Ministry said last week.

Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have developed strong personal ties to bolster a ‘strategic partnership’ between the former communist rivals as they are locked in rivalry with the US.

Even though Moscow and Beijing in the past rejected the possibility of a military alliance, Putin has said such a prospect cannot be ruled out. 

He also has noted that Russia has been sharing highly sensitive military technologies with China that helped significantly bolster its defence capability.

Russia’s defence ministry said the Vostok 2022 war games also involve military contingents and observers from Algeria, India, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria and the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

India stresses its neutrality over the Ukraine war and seeks to maintain good relations with both Western countries and Moscow.

Its military equipment is mainly sourced in Russia, but it is also a member of the Indo-Pacific Quad alliance with the United States, Japan and Australia.

White House Press Secretary Karen Jean-Pierre said: ‘The United States has concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages an unprovoked, brutal war against Ukraine.

‘But, of course, every participating country will make its own decisions. And I’ll leave it at that.’

On India, she said: ‘We have concerns over any country exercising with Russia while Russia is waging this unprovoked war.’

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