Idlib civilians fear offensive: Russian ‘war games’ with China worry West | Sunday Observer

Idlib civilians fear offensive: Russian ‘war games’ with China worry West

Russia’s on-going war games in eastern Siberia is the largest military exercise the world has seen and involves China as well, but superpower America’s President Donald Trump is more concerned with covering up his past sex intrigues and avoiding criminal prosecution. Meanwhile, in Syria’s Idlib province, the various rebel groups on Friday organised civilian protest rallies against an impending government offensive, while in Israel, the government’s forcible Jewish settlement programme pushed on with displacing poor Israeli Arab villagers.

Russia’s regular large scale military exercises in its far eastern region this time involves 297,000 troops, some 36,000 armoured vehicles including squadrons of main battle tanks, over a 1,000 frontline attack aircraft, and two naval flotillas. Ever since a border war with China in the 1960s, Russia (then, the Soviet Union) has regularly held large scale land warfare exercises in that same remote, unpopulated, region mainly with future possible cross-border confrontations in mind.

This year’s war games, named ‘Vostok 2018’, however, hosts both Chinese as well as neighbouring Mongolian forces as well, and western analysts note that the size of the Russian naval forces participating off Russia’s Pacific coastline indicate that the potential ‘enemy’ threat is no longer simply a land-based one. Rather, western analysts speculate that a possible American military threat from the Pacific may also be a contingency being prepared for by this massive exercise.

The war games were launched last Tuesday and end tomorrow and may possibly be the biggest such military exercise in human history.

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu told news media in Moscow last week that Vostok 2018 was actually a series of coordinated military exercises being held across a huge swathe of eastern Siberia and the Pacific coastline. Exercises are being held across nine military testing grounds in this remote, sparsely populated vast region, including four ‘aerospace force’ and ‘air defence’ theatres, and three seas - the Sea of Japan, Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea.Three elite Russian paratroop brigades are drilling at the Tsugol military range, near Russia’s borders with China and Mongolia.

President Vladimir Putin, beset by protests in several parts of Russia over the pruning of the Russian pension scheme and the prospects of more western sanctions due to the spy poisoning scandal in the UK, addressed participating troops in Tsugol last week after first holding a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jing Ping in Vladivostok, Russia’s main Pacific port and principal eastern naval base.

Given the sheer size of the military exercises, twice the scale of the last such drill, Vostok 2014, has alarmed western military analysts, although not many western political leaders have commented. Some of Russia’s and China’s newest aircraft, battle tanks and missile systems were not in action at these exercises.

But, the coordination of land and sea offensives across several theatres of warfare and, especially, the size of the Russian naval forces involved this time, has western analysts arguing that dealing with a potential American threat from the Pacific and across the Bering Strait (that separates the US and Russia) may be the objective of this year’s war games.

At the same time, Russian experts say, Russia is once again testing its capabilities in coordinating such huge numbers of troops, coordination of different types of warfare as well as different types of weapons systems and technology. Nowhere else on Earth but in Russia has the world seen actual wars on the scale that Soviet Russia had to wage against German invading forces during the Second World War. The world saw actual ‘tank armies’ in action across the biggest flatlands on Earth – the famous Steppes – when Soviet dictator and Russian war hero Josef Stalin launched his successive military offensives that finally broke the back of Germany’s much vaunted military might.

Today’s Russian war games echo that scale of warfare, a scale that the world has yet to see again.

The recent expansion of Russia’s military budget is also seen as part of this new flexing of Russian muscles as a response to the heightened tensions between Russia and the West (despite President Trump’s own mysterious friendliness towards Putin). China’s, albeit token (just 3,500 troops), participation in Vostok 2018 is also seen as a possible renewal of close Russo-Chinese military coordination.

Both, Russia and China at present have too many differences of interest in many areas – localised cross border tensions, trade rivalry, rivalries between client states – for any immediate forging of an interdependent military alliance comparable to NATO. But, it is important to remember that originally the two fledgling Communist giant states were the closest of allies, until China’s emergence as an Asian power by the 1960s resulted in competition between the two countries overriding ideological commonalities.

The Soviet Union was quick to provide all necessary economic, political and military support for the establishment and consolidation of Communist rule in China. To date, some key Chinese military technology such as its battle tanks, aircraft and even its infantry weapons remain based on an original Russian design, although several generations of technology down the line. China’s well known T-56 automatic assault rifle and its more recent variants originally derive from even the more world famous Russian Kalashnikov ‘AK’ range of assault rifles. Some of China’s mainstay strike aircraft also similarly originate from the Russian Mikhoyan ‘MiG’ types of aircraft.

But the world has changed enormously with the end of the Cold War and the state transformations in both former Communist powers. Both Russia and China however, have retained their military might, with China now possessing the numerically largest armed forces in the world and Russia remaining as the second biggest nuclear and space power.

While some of China’s military technology, especially its heavy weaponry, remains to be tested in actual warfare, Russian military equipment has been tested in battlegrounds ranging from Afghanistan to Georgia, to Ukraine and the battlegrounds of West Asia, especially Syria.

In Washington, however, the Republican Administration is focussed on fighting the congressional elections in November (equivalent to our parliamentary elections) and retaining its current majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Latest opinion polls indicate that the opposition Democratic Party is gaining in popularity and the originally presumed dominance of the Republicans across many states seems to be under threat.

At stake, then is the presidency of Donald Trump. Originally, the Republicans and the Right-wing had a political strategy of keeping a wholly incompetent Donald Trump as a ‘managed figurehead’ President for the purpose of pushing through sweeping conservative reform - massive privatisation, roll-back of social welfare, tax cuts, roll-back of progressive social reform. But that strategy did not aniticipate the sheer political attrition of maintaining a chronically wilful, amateurish, un-intelligent and utterly self-oriented man in the White House.

As a result of Trump’s stupid or deliberately irresponsible – even possibly treasonous – actions and style as President, the American system itself is in decay while popular opinion has grown tired of the Trump ethos. So much so that Republicans are now beginning to differentiate between the die-hard Trump support base and the much larger traditional Republican constituencies as they attempt to mobilise votes for the November hustings.

The on-going Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation into the Russian election subversion and possible conspiracy with the Trump presidential election campaign to swing the election against the Democrats continues to produce more and more convictions and indictments that are proving the truth of, at least, the Russian subversion, if not the Trump conspiracy.

But the recent prosecution of former Trump election campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his aides gives the impression that the original suspicions maintain that the Trump campaign actively collaborated with and benefitted from the Russian election subversion. The FBI investigation and the parallel, more salacious sex intrigue cases involving Trump has made the Donald Trump presidentsy an even more scandalous and sensational political episode than the Watergate episode of the 1970s involving President Richard Nixon.

Meanwhile, in Syria, hundreds of civilians took to the battle scarred streets of towns in the rebel-controlled Idlib province to protest against an impending government offensive. While the West and the UN has warned Damascus against such an offensive due to the potential humanitarian disaster, neighbouring Turkey is engaged in last-minute diplomacy with Russia and Iran to prevent such a disaster.

As noted last week, Ankara is focussing on reducing the scale of the military operation to prevent a chaotic outcome which will hurt neighbouring Turkey first with a new refugee influx and infiltration by fleeing Islamist insurgents.