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Russia aims to impress and intimidate with its largest military exercise in decades

Not since the Soviet era has the Russian military showed off this much weaponry and tried to convince the world that the Russians are coming -- and they've already arrived. Russian forces have this week conducted its largest war games in a generation, and got some help from China. Nick Schifrin reports that the exercises are as much about projecting power as demonstrating it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, all this week in the vast expanse of Siberia, Russian military forces have been conducting the largest war games in a generation.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, the exercises are as much about projecting power as demonstrating it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Russia's far east, the troops are on parade and the tanks extend as far as the eye can see.

    Not since the Soviet era has the Russian military showed off this much weaponry and tried to convince the world not only the Russians are coming, but they have already arrived, with sound and fury.

    Short-range ballistic missiles fired at a hypothetical enemy, an all-out assault from the ground and air simulating conventional war, soldiers rappelling from helicopters, as if they were launching an invasion. The Russian Navy flooded the Bering Sea that separates Russia from Alaska, and ships launch cruise missiles at hypothetical enemy boats.

    All hailed as proof a military that, 15 years ago, was depleted and demoralized can now mobilize what the Russians claim is their largest exercise since the Cold War, said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Vladimir Putin (through translator): Our duty to the homeland is to be ready to defend the sovereignty, the security and the national interests of our country.

  • Michael Kofman:

    They sound very impressive to a domestic audience, because they make it seem like, well, Russia is a great power that in many ways has been restored in terms of military capability. And they also sound very impressive to foreign audiences, right?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses. He says the exercise isn't only to improve Russian deployment and coordination. It's also about increasing what he calls coercive diplomacy against other countries.

  • Michael Kofman:

    If you want to push people around leveraging the military power that you have, the threat of force, but that's where the force has to be seen. People have to believe it. It's got to be made credible. And, of course, the bigger, more exaggerated it seems, potentially, the better your course of diplomacy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the diplomacy of this exercise is all about China. Those are Chinese troops and Chinese helicopters integrated into a simulated Russian attack. The two militaries have worked together before, but never this high-profile. And never before has a Chinese president participated.

    At a nearby economic forum, Xi Jinping and Putin showed off their relationship and cooking skills. They made Russian pancakes with a healthy dollop of caviar, washed down with vodka.

    Xi rarely conducts public diplomacy. And, watching themselves, the two were at times self-conscious. But at a moment when the U.S. is talking about great power competition, China tied itself to Russia.

    Xi Jinping (through translator): We will continue to make joint efforts to consolidate our traditional friendship, enhance our comprehensive cooperation, and push the China-Russia relationship up to a new height.

  • Michael Kofman:

    The two are increasingly demonstrating something very important. They don't see each other as a threat, but they are responding to a shared about that they perceive in the United States.

    And it's important to understand that alliances between classical powers, great powers, they're not made out of love, affection or trust, or even — or even mutual appearances making pancakes. They're made in response to a larger threat. And that larger threat is very clearly the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The West considers Russia increasingly hostile, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, ongoing battles by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and the Russian military intervention in Syria that saved President Bashar al-Assad.

    In response, the U.S. has deployed more troops to Europe than at any time since the Cold War. Just this week, NATO jets practiced intercepting Russian jets. It's a sign that NATO is more united against Russia, NATO's secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said today in Washington

  • Jens Stoltenberg:

    Because we see a more assertive Russia investing in modern capabilities, that's the reason why NATO has implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Analysts believe Russia doesn't want confrontation with the West, but it wants the world to believe that it can exert force and frighten, with a little help from their friends.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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