The Vostok Military Exercises 2022: Three Takeaways

From 01 August to 07 September, Russia conducted the Vostok 2022 military and strategic command exercise at seven training grounds in the Eastern Military District and in the coastal and maritime areas of the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. It saw the presence of 50,000 troops and over 5000 items of armaments and military hardware from 13 countries. One of the four such exercises led by Russia, this year’s Vostok drills in Russia’s far-east saw participation from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Algeria, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Syria, Mongolia, China, India, Laos, and Nicaragua.

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister, Aleksandr Fomin informed the exercises were conducted in two stages- First, where servicemen declared their decision to participate in the operation, assigned tasks, and prepared the necessary documents and second, where the participants practiced leading the troops in simulated modern operations. Russia’s objective from the exercise was to enhance the military security in the East Asia region and strengthen the combat capabilities of itself and its allies.

Referring to the outcomes of the exercise, Fomin said: “It has demonstrated the increased professional level of the troops and enhanced the interoperability of military authorities of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, its allies, and friendly countries from Europe, Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Latin America.” He also mentioned that all the “assets and objectives” of the exercise were “entirely accomplished.”

Three takeaways from the Vostok 2022 exercises

The 2022 Vostok exercises are not the first example of such multilateral military drills led by Russia. The Vostok Exercises are part of an annual rotating series of large-scale military drills that also consists of the three other drills in the Caucasus, Central and Western strategic commands under Russia. However, given the current geopolitical posturing of Russia, this year’s exercise provides three major takeaways.

First, the greater symbolic importance of the Vostok 2022 from the previous editions. The Vostok 2018 Exercise was one of the largest military exercises to be conducted by Russia since the end of the Cold War. 300,000 military personnel took part in the drill and it was important because of China and Mongolia’s participation. The 2018 exercise marked the cementing of developing Russia-China relations. Even though the 2022 edition was considerably smaller in scale, unlike 2018, it had a deeper political and strategic significance.

In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West against Russia, the exercise complements the narrative that Russia is not isolated yet. In addition to the 13 participating countries, 31 observer states and representatives from regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) monitored the drills. This further reinforced that despite the efforts of Ukraine and the West, Russia is yet to face the worst of international ostracisation. There had been rising concern about whether Russia’s military losses in Ukraine are taking a toll on its forces, but the Vostok exercises also reiterated that Russia has confidence in its forces, the quantity, and expertise of which have not been greatly affected.

Second, a response to NATO. NATO is strengthening its eastern flank. With the accession of Sweden and Finland, it will increase its border with Russia. Its 2022 Strategic Concept describes Russia as the “most significant and direct threat” to the security, peace, and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. The strategic concept also puts forward the narrative that international attention has shifted to the Indo-Pacific. NATO wants to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific region to “tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests.”

Under these circumstances, Russia’s power projection through the exercises in the far-east indicates a shift in its focus from threats along its western borders. The timing of the Vostok exercise comes as a response to NATO’s expansion in what Russia considers its sphere of influence. It also indicates that instead of focussing on NATO’s antagonistic moves, Russia is now looking to maintain its sphere of influence amongst its Central Asian allies and in the Indo-Pacific region.

Third, Russia’s shifting of Focus to its Far East. Apart from the drills by the army of the participating states, Russia and China conducted joint naval drills in the Sea of Japan. Exerting pressure on Japan and demonstrating the growing Russia-China defence partnership were the motivations behind the same. Because of increasing sanctions efforts at isolation by the west, Russia is keen to portray that it has powerful allies like China and India in the Indo-Pacific.

In the case of India, though India did not participate in the maritime drills as consideration towards its defence ally Japan, the Vostok exercises have been a tricky balancing act for India. Wielding regional importance, India’s support to Russia with their ambiguous stance on Ukraine and purchasing of cheap Russian energy helps Russia’s image in the international community. India’s participation in the drill marked interest in the Modi government to maintain ties with Russia.

This sentiment was further reiterated by President Putin at his address at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) 2022, held in Vladivostok, which coincided with the Vostok Exercises. He expressed an interest to consolidate Russia’s ties with China regarding the Belt and Road Initiative and the Polar Silk Route in Russia’s Far East. India also expressed interest to further its cooperation with Russia in energy, pharmaceuticals, maritime connectivity, healthcare, tourism, the diamond industry, and the Arctic. The Eastern Economic Forum’s efforts to connect Russia’s Far East with the larger Indo-Pacific complemented the Vostok exercises and its regional significance.

To conclude, while on paper, the Vostok exercises were merely a multilateral military drill, in reality, they held a deeper significance than that. It reinforced the growing partnership between Russia and China and strengthened Russia’s aspirations for its Far East. It showed the international community that Russia is not isolated yet and has not been as adversely affected by its invasion of Ukraine, as the West would like to promote.

Rishma Banerjee
Rishma Banerjee
Rishma Banerjee completed her Master’s in International Relations from Jadapur University, India and is Research Assistant in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, India. Her research focus is on the geopolitics of Eastern Europe.