Dmitry Gorenburg on Russia-China Military Exercise

Dmitry Gorenburg is Senior Research Scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA, where he has worked since 2000. Dr. Gorenburg is an associate at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and previously served as Executive Director of the American Association of the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). His research interests include security issues in the former Soviet Union, Russian military reform, Russian foreign policy, and ethnic politics and identity. Dr. Gorenburg is author of Nationalism for the Masses: Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and has been published in journals such as World Politics and Post-Soviet Affairs. He currently serves as editor of Problems of Post-Communism. Dr. Gorenburg received a B.A. in international relations from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at 

Ellie Wainstein CMC ‘19 interviewed Dmitry Gorenburg on September 18, 2018.

Biography and Photograph courtesy of Dmitry Gorenburg.


This week more than 3,000 Chinese troops participated in Russia’s largest military drill since the Soviet era. Despite a history of joint military drills, the Chinese participation in the Vostok drills has attracted attention worldwide. Why are these drills significant?

The actual numbers were not as large as advertised, but it is still probably the largest military exercise that Russia has conducted since the Soviet period. From the point of view of military readiness, it is significant and Russia has been working quite a bit on improving its ability to move troops from one region of the country to another. One of the problems that Russia has is that the Far East is relatively isolated in terms of road and rail networks. There is always an effort to improve Russian ability to move forces to the East because, in the event of a conflict, Russia does not want the region to be completely isolated. The other significant aspect is that this is the first time in 80 years that Russia conducted an exercise involving two sets of forces fighting each other, rather than having one force fighting against a simulated enemy. This kind of exercise was done in the 1930s, but it is not something that the Soviet Union did much during the Cold War period. In these recent drills, Russia has taken the forces from the Central Military District and is having them fight against the forces from the Eastern Military District. This new kind of exercise allows the Russians to practice a different set of skills.

In regards to the political significance, the exercise shows that China and Russia are working more closely with each other to counter what they see as a potentially mutual threat from the United States, and for Russia, also from NATO. It is not the first exercise that Russia and China have done together or that involved Chinese troops on Russian soil; but it is the first time that Chinese troops have participated in a capstone Russian exercise. This represents a signal to the West that they are working closely together against this perceived mutual threat.


Russian officials have reported that 297,000 Russian troops participated in the drills, which would represent about one-third of the country’s military. While some have speculated that these numbers are likely inflated, nonetheless why is Russia undertaking such a large drill? How should we assess China’s relative scope of participation?

The general tendency for the Russian Ministry of Defense in the Eastern Region is to inflate the number of troops participating. For instance, say there is a division or brigade and one battalion from that grouping participating in an exercise. The Ministry of Defense will count the numbers from the entire larger unit resulting in a much larger number than is actually participating. The number of 297,000 is too large because there are limits on the road and rail networks in the region. One Russian expert determined that if they were actively using all of the equipment that was advertised they would tie up the rail networks for weeks and weeks just transferring the equipment to the location where the exercises were conducted. In terms of why advertise such a large number, it is a signal to the rest of the world that Russia has a large military that is highly prepared to engage in combat. Also, it is the one opportunity to have such high numbers because while this is an annual exercise that rotates among the four main strategic directions in Russia: East, West, Center and South, in the other parts of the country there are limits to the number of troops that can participate in an exercise without having official observers from other countries. The agreements with these limitations are European-focused so they do not apply to this situation.

For China, it had to get its troops to Russia. Bringing troops all that way is logistically complicated, extensive and visible, so we would not expect the same inflation of numbers. As a result, 3,200 troops is a reasonable number for participation in the exercise given what China and Russia wanted to accomplish.


Given the United States is starting a trade war with China and is imposing sanctions on Russia, what signal do these joint Russia-China exercises send to Washington? How has the Trump administration responded?

The signaling that both countries have been highlighting is that they are not happy with the U.S. dominance in the international system and they would like a more multipolar world. Essentially, they want a seat at the table for setting the rules of the international system. For the Russians, this closer relationship with China has been forced upon them with the rapid deterioration of relations with the West after the Ukraine crisis. In 2014, Russia felt that it needed an alliance with China in order to offset the crisis with the West. Therefore, it was willing to accept a junior role to China. For China, the Chinese leadership under Xi has been more assertive than in the past, in part because China is economically stronger. The Chinese leadership is more confident and is pushing for a stronger position in the international system. While China is not particularly interested in provoking crises with the West, it is piggybacking on Russia’s actions to improve its position.

I have not been particularly looking for U.S. government responses to these exercises. The response has, by and large, been fairly calm since the countries are allowed to do exercises. However, on the political side, the U.S. has been much more focused on the other issues consuming each end of the bilateral relationship. Instead of the military exercises, U.S. government’s attention has been focused on Russia's role in the 2016 election and the trade war with China.


In previous years, the Vostok exercises were meant to serve as a show of Russian strength in Asia, with Beijing and Moscow as rivals. How does China’s inclusion this year demonstrate Moscow’s changing perspective of China? Could it be the beginning of a formal military alliance?

Russia was in an awkward position because, in past iterations of the Vostok exercise, the slightly hidden purpose was to practice defending Russia against a Chinese invasion.  

For example, in the 2010 iteration, the setup for the exercise was that Russia was fighting illegally armed bands. However, the culmination of the exercise involved simulated tactical nuclear weapon use, which is not something that would be used against illegally armed bands, but it is something that Russia could potentially use against China. Now, in this new environment where China and Russia have a partnership, a vaguely hidden exercise against China would be politically difficult and less necessary because there is a smaller chance that the two countries would be fighting each other. By involving Chinese forces directly, Russia was able to recast the whole exercise as a partnership exercise and ameliorate the political tensions stemming from conducting a large military exercise on China’s borders. From that point of view, the change is that potentially fighting China is mostly off the table for now, whereas, in the past, Moscow was still preparing to fight China at some point.

Regarding whether this closer cooperation would result in a formal military alliance, I do not think so. There is no real reason for the China and Russia to formalize the partnership. They could continue with a deepening informal partnership and get all the benefits on both sides of that relationship without tying themselves down in a more formal kind of alliance that would complicate relations with other countries in the region, namely Japan and countries in Southeast Asia.


In addition to the joint military exercises, the two countries’ deepening cooperation includes new sales of Russian advanced weapons. What is each country gaining or hope to gain from this stronger bond?

For Russia, the motivation is financial. Having income from the sales of the advanced weapons to China is helpful for the bottom line for the defense industry. The Chinese have made great advances in domestic weapons production. However, there are still areas where they are behind the Russians and, therefore, the Russian weapons and advanced air defense systems are helpful in improving China’s military capabilities. The potential danger for Russians and the reason they have been reluctant for many years to sell those weapons is that China had a reputation of copying Russian weapons, remaking them for themselves and selling knock-off versions. Russians wanted to protect their intellectual property and, therefore, did not sell their latest weapon systems. However, after the change of the Chinese-Russian relationship in 2014, the Russians felt like they had to make a decision and take the risk of selling weapons to their partner, so it is another part of the changing political and security relationship.

The geopolitical aims and approaches of China and Russia do not necessarily coincide. China has for decades sought to integrate itself into an established international order while Russia has increasingly demonstrated its rejection of a world order in which U.S. interests are dominant. How do these differing approaches affect the potential scope of cooperation? Could this be a source of conflict between the two countries or will they be able to focus on points of common interest?

I do not think China and Russia’s aims are really that different. Both countries want to modify the international order. Neither one rejects the order completely. I would consider Russia a little bit more of a revisionist party and China a little bit less. The main problem that the two countries have with the international order is not that it exists, but that the United States has a dominant role. They want a seat at the table as part of that order. They are revisionist only to the extent that the United States, from their view, has been refusing to make adjustments and that is what they want to change.

Given that, the main difference is in approach. Russia is much more willing to be confrontational and it claims to be a bigger player, whereas China is letting Russia take the lead. However, China is more willing to stay in the shadows and play the long game, since it is a rising power and Russia is, in the long-term, either static or even declining. As a result, Russia is less willing to play this long game that China is playing and wait to be so powerful that the United States will be forced to recognize its strength.


Do you think these differences in approaches could lead to a point of conflict or do you think China is okay with sitting in the background and allowing Russia to be aggressive to the United States?

There could certainly be tensions over the different approaches. We saw this a little bit with Ukraine where China thought that Russia was going too far. The Chinese participated in some economic outreach to Ukraine to signal that they are not going to let Russia dictate how China deals with other countries even if there are hostilities with Russia.


Anything else we should keep in mind looking at the China-Russia relationship moving forward?

We should continue to look at how Russia balances its relationship with China with its others relationships in the region. In particular, the Russia-Southeast Asia relationship, specifically with Vietnam, is very important economically for Russia. Russia used to maintain a neutral position on the maritime territorial disputes between Vietnam and China regarding the South China Sea. This Russia-Vietnam relationship has become a bit more complicated with the closer Russia-China relationship. That is something to watch and see how Russian-Asian relationships are affected by the Russia-China relationship. Russia’s pivot to Asia has been largely focused on China so that is a potential area for other countries to see the Russia-China relationship as becoming too close for comfort.


Ellie Wainstein CMC '19Student Journalist

By 栾盛杰 ( [CC BY 2.5 cn (], via Wikimedia Commons

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