On Sept. 7, 2018, two US F-22 Raptor fighter jets intercepted two Russian nuclear-capable Tu-95MC strategic bombers flying over the Arctic Ocean, escorting them for part of their journey over the waters of the Arctic and the Bering and Okhotsk seas.
The US planes tracked the Russian bombers until they left the area, flying west over the Aleutian Islands.
A defense official told The Washington Free Beacon that the bombers may have been practicing for a cruise-missile strike on US missile-defense sites and radars in Alaska — which may be a feature of the Russia’s upcoming massive Vostok-18 exercise that Russian officials have said will be the largest such drill since the Cold War.
Russian troops have already undergone “snap inspections” in preparation for the exercise, the active portion of which will take place between Sept. 11 to Sept. 17, 2018, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, according to Russian state-media outlet Tass.
Exercises will take place at five ground testing areas and four aerial testing areas over the Sea of Japan and the Bering and Okhotsk seas.
“Aircraft have been flying maximum range sorties with refueling in flight and practicing landings at tactical airfields. Naval ships have been performing combat maneuvering and firing practices,” Shoigu said, according to Tass.
Russian armored vehicles participating in Zapad-2017 exercises.
(Russian Ministry of Defense)
Shoigu said in late August 2018 that about 300,000 Russian personnel and 1,000 aircraft, including drones, would take part, adding that “up to 80 combat and logistics ships and up to 36,000 tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles” will be involved.
Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s general staff, said Sept. 6, 2018, that 21 formations had been mobilized in 10 regions for the exercise, the main purpose of which, he said, “is to check the level of training that can be assessed only in an exercise of proper scale.”
“This exercise, to be held on the bilateral basis, will be the strictest test of combat skills and the military districts’ readiness for ground, air and naval operations,” he added.
“Involved in the exercise will be forces from the Eastern and Central federal districts, the Northern Fleet, and Airborne Forces, as well as long-range, military transport and tactical aircraft of Russia’s Aerospace Force,” Gerasimov said, according to Tass.
Gerasimov also said that Chinese and Mongolian personnel will take part “side by side” with Russian forces.
Shoigu said in September 2018 that up to 3,500 Chinese army personnel would be involved “in the main scenario at the Tsugol proving ground” in Russia’s Eastern Military District.
China’s involvement has elicited surprise, given that Vostok, or East, has long been seen as Moscow’s preparation for a potential conflict with Beijing. China and Russia have done joint drills before, but this appears to be the first time Beijing has taken part in the Vostok exercise.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
China “is now being invited to join as a friend and even a quasi-ally,” Alexander Gabuev, a China expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The New York Times in August 2018.
The exercise is also expected to include simulated nuclear-weapons attacks, US officials told The Free Beacon. A Pentagon official said the US would watch the war games closely, calling them “strategic messaging” by both China and Russia.
Mongolia is also participating for the first time, and contingents from there and China are “completing coordination and adjustment at the Tsugol proving ground,” Gerasimov said, referring to an area near the eastern intersection of the three countries’ borders — where Gabuev suggested they might be restricted so Russian troops elsewhere could train for a potential clash with China.
NATO has also criticized the exercise, with a spokesman for the alliance saying it “fits into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defense budget and its military presence.”
Russia’s deputy defense minister, Col-Gen. Alexander Fomin said in September 2018 that the upcoming drills “lacked the slightest traces” of “anti-NATO bias or aggressiveness.”
Fomin also said Russian military personnel had been briefed on security and safety measures in accordance with Moscow’s agreements with neighboring countries, including the US.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.