MOSCOW • Russia has kicked off its biggest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union close to its border with China, mobilising 300,000 troops in a show of force that will include joint exercises with the Chinese army.
China and Russia have staged joint drills before, but not on such a large scale, and the Vostok-2018 exercise that began on Tuesday signals closer military ties as well as sends an unspoken reminder to Beijing that Moscow is able and ready to defend its sparsely populated far east.
Vostok-2018 is taking place at a time of heightened tension between the West and Russia, and Nato has said it will monitor the exercise closely, as will the United States, which has a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Russia's defence ministry broadcast images on Tuesday of columns of tanks, armoured vehicles and warships on the move, and helicopters and fighter aircraft taking off.
In one clip, marines from Russia's Northern Fleet and a motorised Arctic brigade were shown disembarking from a large landing ship on a barren shore opposite Alaska. This activity was part of the first stage of the exercise, which runs until Sept 17, the ministry said in a statement.
The main aim was to check the military's readiness to move troops over large distances, to test how closely infantry and naval forces cooperated and to perfect command and control procedures. Later stages will involve rehearsals of defensive and offensive scenarios.
The location of the main training range, 5,000km east of Moscow, means it is likely to be watched closely by Japan, and North and South Korea, as well as by China and Mongolia, both of whose armies will take part in the manoeuvres later this week.
Analysts say Moscow had to invite the Chinese and Mongolian militaries, given the proximity of the war games to their borders and because the scale meant the countries would probably have seen them as a threat had they been excluded.
The exercise - which will involve more than 1,000 military aircraft, two Russian naval fleets, up to 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles and all Russian airborne units - began as President Vladimir Putin held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Russian port city of Vladivostok.
Russia broadcast footage of some of the 24 helicopters and six jets belonging to the Chinese air force that landed at Russian air bases for the exercise. Beijing has said 3,200 members of the People's Liberation Army will join in.
Some experts see the war games as a message to Washington, with which both Moscow and Beijing have strained ties. "With its Vostok-2018 exercise, Russia sends a message that it regards the US as a potential enemy and China as a potential ally," wrote Dr Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian army colonel and director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank.
When asked if he was concerned about a potential military alliance between Russia and China, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said he did not see the two countries aligned in the long term.
Mr Putin, who is armed forces commander-in-chief, is expected to observe the exercises this week alongside Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.