Vladimir Putin has his own rhythm of war that lingers in his ears but the rhythm of the combat he expected in Ukraine has reduced its speed from ‘Presto’ to ‘Adagio.’ Putin has ordered his military to play the war drums faster but is still stuck in the ‘Andante’ at its best.
A big concert requires rehearsal; a war requires exercise. This simple equation also applied to the ongoing Ukraine war but many failed to account for Russia’s big war rehearsals before the Ukraine war. Now is the time to revisit these rehearsals to foresee Putin’s entire music notes and how he will act as a maestro (conductor) of this war and where will it end.
We have witnessed the alphabet “Z” and “V” on various Russian war machines in Ukraine at the very early stages of the crisis and found out that these two characters mean Zapad (West) and Vostok (East).
However, many failed to correlate these two letters to Russia’s grand scale war rehearsals in 2017 and 2018. Five years ago, Russia conducted a big-scale war exercise called “Zapad 2017” with 100,000 soldiers and continued with another big exercise, “Vostok 2018” with 300,000 troops and only gave short notice to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These two exercises in a row were unprecedented mega-scale military movements since the Soviet Union in the 1981’s Exercise Zapad-81. Simply put, Vladimir Putin revived the Soviet-era tradition and ambition again in the 21st century.
KGB-grown Putin gradually prepared his plan through various regional military exercises to mega-size exercises and camouflaged Russian military war rehearsals as ‘business as usual.’ Chronologically, Russia has initiated many exercises: Vostok 2014, Tsentr 2015 (Center), Kavkaz 2016 (South), Zapad 2017, Vostok 2018, Tsentr 2019, Kavkaz 2020, and Zapad 2021. Russia did multiple exercises every year before the Ukraine war in 2022. These exercises gave Russia a reason to deploy more forces near the borderline with Ukraine and instilled a pro forma reason for a great war.
In terms of intelligence perspective, Putin took advantage of this pattern of exercises in recent years that he cunningly turned a joint exercise with Belarus into a war and it even deceived their own soldiers−Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine thought this was also another annual exercise.
Zapad 2017: The beginning of two-theater wars
There are many points we should go over from these rehearsals especially Zapad 2017 and Vostok 2018. The first is about—two-theater wars capabilities— which is the handling of two major wars in different theaters at the same time. Such capability is a well-known and only-possible American defense capability that has grown and proven for decades in dealing with real conflicts overseas but Russia has never shown such capability to the world. Putin tested its military through these recent exercises and let America and its allies watch what Russia can do.
During Zapad 2017 exercise, Russia hit and dismantled multiple targets in different locations simultaneously with scenarios of confronting NATO in the west. Russia used Iskandar-M missiles to destroy targets in Kazakhstan during this exercise. This Iskandar’s close cousin is North Korea’s KN-23 variants which is known to evade South Korea’s missile defense systems and was first shown to the public in February 2018 after the Zapad 2017 through the military parade. In this Zapad exercise, Belarus also involved and helped Russia’s advancement toward the West. For military pundits’ eyes, the current Ukraine war amounts to deja vu of Zapad 2017.
Vostok 2018: Joint power between Moscow and Beijing
After Zapad 2017, Russia came up with a more defined scenario of handling two major wars in two different theaters in the West and the East through Vostok 2018, and even the Mongolian Armed Forces and Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers participated in the exercise. Especially, China even dispatched its Dongdiao-class intelligence-gathering AGI (auxiliary general intelligence) vessel to Russia and monitored the entire exercise; 3,500 PLA troops took part in the exercise with the Russians. For China, this was the first time such a grand-scale joint exercise was undertaken. From the Chinese perspective, it was a good opportunity for unripened Chinese PLA soldiers to learn from Russia’s modern warfare strategy and strengthen their overall military interoperability in a foreign country. Despite China’s military technological advancement, they lacked experience in command and control in a war. This exercise was more realistic than previous Russian exercises that Putin had implemented. A two-team fight mechanism divided the blue team and red team and they battled each other rather than fighting with an imaginary enemy. So, Russia acquired realistic lessons from this training while they also learned how to mobilize their forces in the Far East.
Russia and China romance over South Korean sky and North Korean
This special exercises-grown brotherhood between Russia and China bolstered and engaged in the Far East over South Korean airspace in July 23, 2019 which many western military experts failed to account for. Both Russia and Chinese military jets intruded Korean airspace so much so that South Korean Air Force’s F-15Ks had to fire 360 rounds of bullets to stop their further trespass. Such joint adversaries’ penetration of South Korea was unheard of in Korean Air Force history.
Ironically, two days after the adversaries’ air penetration, North Korea launched KN-23 missiles. It was the first time North Korea tested its new tactical KN-23 variants which are similar to the Russian Iskandar-M missiles. It was the same missile Russia tested in the Zapad 2017 exercise. Two months after the penetration, both China and Russia participated in a joint exercise, Tsentr (South) 2019 to again strengthen their relations. Chinese PLA bombers even conducted airstrikes during the exercise. Based on their airstrikes, many air force experts can tell their ground targets are designed to attack targets in Asia rather than Europe such as Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
Adversaries’ air penetration in Japan and Taiwan are already known because of local news coverages, but many are not aware of such penetrations to South Korea airspace because of Moon Jae-in administration’s strange stance between US and China. The Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) even manipulated its data about China and Russian military jets intrusion to South Korea to align with adversaries’ advancements in the region which was later revealed in 2020.
Ex-US Forces Korea Commander Robert Abrams also worried about Chinese advancement in Korea and said in the interview with Voice of America, “there has been a 300 percent increase in the violation of the Korean air defense identification zone (KADIZ) by Chinese military planes in the three years ending in 2021.”
Russian orchestra in harmony with Beijing and Pyongyang
Anyone who pays close attention to Russian prelude of war to Ukraine can hear and see the Russian orchestra is ready to play their notes in Asia sooner or later. This music can end with China and North Korea in harmony. This music is originally designed as an ensemble of World War-III and never been planned as an improvisation in Ukraine. It is strictly calculated in a harmony with Putin’s desperado allies that are involved in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is already proven by the Korean War that Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang are brothers of war that can support one another when needed. Pyongyang has already promised its missiles supply to Moscow and Beijing wants to support Russia financially.
Ironically, South Korea under the Moon Jae-in administration also deployed high officials to the Wanshou Dialogue on Global Security organized by the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament (CPAPD) meeting in 2019 for the first time. At that time, Moon Jae-in and Shinzo Abe spoke in contradicting voices for Chinese Uyghurs and the Hong Kong turmoil got the media attention too. Simply, Moon supported China while Abe was against China.
Following this, the Ukraine crisis is something to consider in a bigger spectrum and relate to recent Chinese and North Korea’s situations. China’s illogical containment in major cities under the name of COVID-19 restriction can be interpreted as concentration of sources for PLA military or traditional maskirovka (military deception) before the big event while North Korea’s show of power through number of missiles launches and mega-military parade in April will play an important role for the grand war. North Korea wants to destroy the newly elected conservative President Yoon Seok-yeol who has no political background in at the early phase of his tenure.
NATO to QUAD
Unfortunately, NATO’s commitment on Ukraine is lower than people’s expectation due to its traumatic lesson from the Able Archer 83 fiasco which nearly ignited World War-III between the US and Russia due to a misunderstanding of each other. However, the world have learned from masters of war through their valuable lessons that coalitions on this war should unite stronger to deter adversaries’ further advancement towards Eastern Europe and Asia. Carl von Clausewitz said, “the best strategy is always to be very strong: first in general, and then at the decisive point…There is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated.”
In the end, if we fail to stop this Ukraine crisis at this moment then it will be a true challenge for the US and allies to deal with two different wars in two different theaters. South Korea’s new president will attend NATO meeting in June along with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand under the Asia-Pacific 4 banner. We are only missing India here. If India is included, all the Quad members will be present at the NATO meeting. This will give South Korea a special opportunity to return favor to coalitions that supported it in the Korean War in 1950. South Korea’s new administration should use this chance wisely and expand a bridge from NATO to the Quad. Our history has taught us that any unprecedented multi-dimensional challenges in the modern day can be faced through ironclad friendship.