Far from Ukraine, Russia plans big eastern war games next month

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Russian service members hold drills in the Rostov region

By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) -Russia plans to hold strategic military exercises in the east of the country starting next month, the defence ministry said on Tuesday, thousands of miles from the war in Ukraine.

The "Vostok" (East) exercises will take place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5. They appear intended to send a message that Russia, despite the costly five-month war in Ukraine, remains focused on the defence of its entire territory and capable in military terms of sustaining "business as usual".

But that may be a challenge given Moscow's heavy losses in men and equipment in Ukraine - including troops and hardware sent there from the eastern military district where the war games will take place.

"A lot of troops and gear from the eastern MD (military district) have already been deployed, rotated, lost and killed in Ukraine since February, so this will be interesting to see what they can salvage," said Mathieu Boulegue, a military specialist at London's Chatham House think-tank.

In a statement, the defence ministry emphasised that its capacity to stage such drills was unaffected by what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

It said Russia had not cancelled any training activities or international cooperation, and the exercises would be supplied with all necessary personnel, weapons and equipment.

"We draw your attention to the fact that only a part of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is involved in the special military operation (in Ukraine), the number of which is quite sufficient to fulfil all the tasks set by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief," the statement said.

CIA Director William Burns said last week the United States estimated that 15,000 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine since February - as many deaths as the Soviet army sustained in a decade of war in Afghanistan from 1979 - and three times that many may have been wounded.

The eastern military district includes part of Siberia and has its headquarters in Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border. The exercises will include some foreign forces, the defence ministry said, without specifying from which countries.

The previous Vostok drills in 2018 took place on a massive scale with nearly 300,000 troops reported to be involved, including for the first time from the Chinese army.

Whether and on what scale China takes part this year will provide significant clues to the state of bilateral relations as Putin attempts to court Beijing at a time of heightened confrontation between Russia and the West.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Nick Macfie, Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis)

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