Seven weeks after the FIFA World Cup concluded in Russia, Moscow is “uncoiling” in several strategic directions simultaneously. This is a term used to describe moving from a curled position to straight and can be applied to inanimate or animate objects. In the context of Russian foreign policy, the term has been used to denote the Kremlin’s strategic actions. In the wake of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia’s “Novorossiya” experiment in Eastern Ukraine erupted violently, with Moscow uncoiling after another major international sporting event.
In the wake of the 2018 World Cup, Moscow’s military and naval activity is at an all-time high across a broad swath from Eurasia to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia uncoiling across a number of different theaters is a display of armed forces prowess. Optics are important for Moscow and there is much to see in terms of displays. More interesting, however, are the strategic and tactical aspects of what is uncoiling.
Vostok 2018, scheduled for Sept. 11 to 15, will see Russia host its largest military exercise since 1981. The war games in Siberia and the country’s Far East will involve nearly 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft, and vessels from the Vladivostok-based Pacific Fleet and the Barents Sea-based Northern Fleet. Some 900 tanks will also be mobilized for the exercise. In addition, China will participate in Russia’s Vostok exercises for the first time by sending helicopters and 3,200 troops, while Mongolia will send a smaller but balanced contingent. The Russian Pacific and Northern Fleets are equipped to carry nuclear weapons, which means that part of the exercise is to practice nuclear warfare operations. Importantly, China’s participation further illustrates a Russo-Chinese military alliance.
Simultaneously, Moscow is uncoiling by striking at Eastern Ukraine. Notably, military equipment destined for Vostok 2018 is being diverted toward the Russian-Ukrainian border, where Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, died in a blast a few days ago. Many see the assassination as a provocation for Russia to again enter Ukraine and take care of the Kremlin’s geographical necessity of capturing the Sea of Azov and the lands that feed water and electricity into the Crimean Peninsula.
Full control of the Sea of Azov is a major strategic objective for the Kremlin. In March, Ukrainian authorities detained a Crimean-registered fishing vessel for illegally sailing in the Sea of Azov under the Russian flag and arrested its captain and crew — a move one Russian official likened to that of “Somali pirates.”