Why Putin's Military is Gearing Up For Action in Russia

The Russian military has largely stayed out of the news since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in recent weeks, it has returned to the foreground. Over the past few days, Russia carried out its largest military combat readiness drills since the 1991 transition from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation. The exercises have included 160,000 troops, over 1,000 tanks, 130 planes, and 70 naval vessels, and took place in Russia’s far east. These drills are certainly being performed as much for strategic aims as for combat preparation. The most prominent goals is to reassert Russia’s military prominence in the world, and particularly, as the preeminent power in the Far East. 

First and foremost, China is Russia’s largest potential threat. Conflict between the two countries may seem unlikely, but given their enormous shared border and history of territorial disputes, some feel that the two leviathans are poised for an eventual clash. China’s military modernization has been threatening to Russia, and stirred memories of past altercations.  Alexander Khramichikhin, a Moscow-based military analyst, has written that it is only a matter of time until tensions bubbles over. Regionally, China's territorial conflicts in the East and South China Seas have already led to its reputation as an expansionist bully.  While Russia engaged in a cooperative military interaction with China earlier this month, these drills serve a purpose that those did not. 

The massive exercises also have direct implications for Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party, the conservative party of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is once again firmly in power, and will seek further electoral gains in the upper house of the Diet next week. This means that continued rhetoric about re-militarization and territorial nationalization is next to certain. The Russian exercises signal to Japanese leadership that Russia is not about to back down with regard to territorial disputes, or maritime resource control, which is an important issue in the Sea of Okhotsk. The majority of the exercises have taken place on Sakhalin, an island formerly divided and disputed by the two states. 

The United States also has a large presence in the Pacific and East Asia, with military bases in several countries, including Japan. The exercises indirectly show the United States that Russia's Pacific fleet remains a competent and formidable force.

The eastern exercises were conducted in addition to a troop mobilization in the Russian Southwest that seeks to reassert Russia’s interest and influence in the Middle East. (Earlier this week, the Israelis allegedly interdicted Russian weapons in Syria, which prompted the mobilization.)

Since the beginning of the year, Russia has been undertaking military exercises more frequently, and doing so all over its pan-continental territory, from the east, to the Black Sea, to the Baltic Sea. The country has also begun a $641 billion military expansion. The eastern drills are a reminder to the world, and especially to China, Japan, and the United States, that the Russian military is but a slumbering giant, and not a meager relic. 

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George Hartmann

Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service Class of 2014

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