Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov saw no irony, telling reporters on 23 August that the exercises -- called Peace Mission 2005 -- had only peaceful aims.
"These exercises do not threaten anyone. They are not aimed against anyone," Ivanov said. "Their aim is to allow us to familiarize ourselves with each other's military capabilities, with our modern armaments and [to test] our operational capability -- that is, the ability of the militaries of two friendly states to act shoulder to shoulder according to the announced scenario, which is a peacekeeping mission."
But why so many soldiers and so much heavy military hardware for an exercise designed to simulate a joint effort at ending ethnic strife somewhere on the Pacific coast? And why is Russia suddenly cozying up to one of its historical rivals?
That’s the question being asked around the region, especially in Tokyo and Taipei, as well as farther away in Washington.
Many in Taiwan believe the exercise is aimed against them. Local defense analyst Andrew Yang told Reuters the war games could be giving the Chinese military an opportunity to practice attacks on Taiwan, using some of the new Russian technology it has recently been acquiring.
“Obviously, Taiwan is the core interest of China because they consider Taiwan is part of Chinese sovereignty," Yang said. "And the PLA [Peoples’ Liberation Army], the Chinese military, is taking advantage of this opportunity to conduct a joint military exercise with Russia, to learn new military methods, tactics, as well as strategies to cope with potential threats in the region."
According to estimates by the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Russia has been selling China an average of $2 billion worth of weapons each year since 2000.
Officially, Washington is not expressing any concern. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld downplayed the significance of the exercise, in comments to reporters on 23 August.
"Nations have exercises all the time," Rumsfeld said. "We do with any number of countries, dozens of different countries. And NATO countries do with Russia on various things, and we do with India. So, I guess I don't find it notable. It is just a fact that countries get together and engage in various types of exercises."
But there is no doubt that the United States, which has some 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea and more than 40,000 soldiers in nearby Japan, is watching closely.
“The question being asked in Washington, in Tokyo, in other capitals around the region, as well as in Moscow, is how will this affect their relationship with China and the broader security environment and economic environment within Asia or on a global level," said Robert Karniol, the Asia-Pacific editor of “Jane’s Defence Weekly.” "And nobody really knows the answers to that obviously. But everybody is very concerned.”
The Russian newspaper “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” in an analysis printed on 23 August, said Moscow is using the exercise to try to counter growing U.S. influence in Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.
Of course, there could also be a much simpler explanation. This past week’s war games, extensively covered by the international media, are a great opportunity for Russia to advertise its military hardware -- and find new customers for its arms industry.
Asia: Trouble In The Neighborhood?