Currently north Asia is abuzz with military activity. And for once the main culprit is not North Korea, it’s Russia. But the activity is confined to drills and training exercises.
Russia and China have been holding large-scale naval exercises—China has sent seven warships and Russia has committed its Pacific Fleet flagship, the guided-missile Slava class cruiser Varyag—aimed at increasing connections between the two militaries. In fact, this is the largest joint naval drill China has ever conducted. And if those exercises weren’t enough, on Friday Putin called for snap military drills, making the current war games the biggest since the collapse of the Soviet Union (160,000 troops, 130 planes, 70 ships).
The size and scale of the events, along with their timing, leads one to wonder why now.
The first answer has to do with an increasingly assertive and nationalistic Japan under current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan’s activity in the region, both economically (engaging in trade negotiations with the U.S.) and politically (supporting the U.S. “pivot”), has spurred Russia’s attention. But Japan is a secondary consideration to the increasing presence of the U.S. in Asia. Trade negotiations and focusing of attention on the region has drawn concern from the Kremlin. This wariness has been exacerbated by Russia’s perpetual under-investment and dwindling population in the Far East. Determined not to be relegated to a secondary actor, Russia is attempting to raise its profile and to assert its presence in the region.
Moreover, the naval exercises with China are another sign of the increasing interconnectedness between the two countries. Rosneft, the state oil giant, recently signed a $270 billion oil deal and has received several loans from Chinese state controlled banks. Additionally, the two countries see their interests aligned within the region, especially as Japan is a staunch ally of the U.S. and remains in conflict with both Russia and China over disputed island territories (with China over the Senkaku Islands, and with Russia over the contested Kuril Islands that were annexed by Soviet forces in the waning days of World War II). The economic and political connections illustrate Russia’s own version of a “pivot” to the region, especially as Europe’s demand for Russian energy diminishes.
Beyond the geopolitical posturing is the showcasing of Russia’s modernizing military. After its 2008 war with Georgia, which exposed several embarrassing inadequacies despite the victory, Dmitry Medvedev and Putin announced a multi-year, multi-billion dollar modernization and re-armament program. The program has increased from a projected budget of $688 billion to $730 billion through 2020—the amount of money budgeted for modernization could become a large financial strain, especially considering the increasingly negative economic outlook. The program is expected to incorporate all branches of service; from new and improved fighters (including Russia’s answer to the U.S. F-22 stealth fighter, Sukhoi’s T-50), to increased numbers of contract soldiers, to ambitious ship and submarine building ventures. The Defense Ministry expects to increase the number of contract soldier to 425,000 and to create a professional NCO corps by 2020. As Russia Beyond the Headlines reports: “[General Valery Gerasimov] stated that the troops would be receiving between 70 and 100 aircraft per year, more than 120 helicopters, eight or nine surface vessels and submarines, and up to 600 units of new armored equipment.”
Yet as with any project in Russia, the cost has to include the inevitable corruption and bribery that is sure to follow. Accusations of impropriety brought down the previous defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, and recent reports of increasing corruption—corruption costs are up 450% according to the Prosecutor General–portend no dramatic headway against corruption (The Interpreter’s James Miller recently examined the recent reports of corruption in the military and the fallout from Serdyukov’s resignation).
It is becoming increasing clear that nations are paying attention to America’s pivot. And with continued disagreements over Iran and Syria, an increased American presence in Asia is sure to increase anxiety in Beijing and Moscow. As Leslie H. Gelb and Dimitri K. Simes noted in a recent New York Times op-ed: “Russian and Chinese leaders make clear that Washington’s support for their neighbors in practically every dispute involving Beijing or Moscow is less a matter of respect for international law than a form of dual containment that seeks to curtail the regional and global influence of these two major powers.”