In mid-April, Russia and China embarked on an experiment: a joint naval exercise in Chinese waters. To some in the West, such undertakings are worrisome: perhaps they pre-sage closer ties between the Russian and Chinese navies.
I have taken part in Russian-U.S. naval exchanges in both U.S. and Russian waters and an army exchange at Fort Riley. I know what goes into such visits.
Ship visits are a diplomatic tool. If one country wishes to demonstrate a positive relationship toward another and the other country reciprocates, the stage is set for military-to-military exchanges. In many ways, naval visits are the easiest. Visiting crews come with their own housing, food, medical care and, previously, security personnel. That mattered because in the past Moscow did not want to risk sailors defecting to the U.S. Now Russians can travel more or less freely.
Such visits often include joint exercises — rescuing a boat in distress or acting against pirates such as those operating off Somalia. In essence, the goal is to create enough understanding of how the other side operates to avoid mistakes that could cause real problems. When it came to fighting pirates, we learned that NATO and Russian communications systems were not compatible. If we had exercised more in the past, we would have known that. We provided Russians with NATO communications systems to deal with the problem.
Another example: Americans tie their ships alongside a pier. Russians, however, use the “Med Mor” system; they back a ship into position so that only the aft part of the ship is touching a pier. Both approaches work; it is flexibility that is critical. We learned how to Med Mor during visits to Russia.
Such visits can have humorous moments. I remember a Russian admiral who wanted to purchase pantyhose for his wife. We took off at high speed for the PX, and when we arrived, we went with the PX director to the lingerie department. Then we discovered a problem. Russians use the metric system, and it was very difficult to translate his wife’s size to American sizes. So he turned to me — I was carefully dressed in my white uniform — and said, “You hold the pantyhose up. She is about your size.” I complied, albeit reluctantly. I have done many things for my country, but in this case I felt I was going above and beyond duty. Fortunately, there were no cameras present.
To return to the Russian- Chinese ship visit, it consisted of 20 types of ships, which suggest the importance of the exercise. The assortment included destroyers, escort vessels, hospital ships, submarines and supply ships. The exercise took place in the Yellow Sea, which the Chinese were quick to point out is in their territorial waters. What did the two navies do? To quote a Russian source, “The active phase of the exercise comprised several missions, including the rescue of a hijacked ship, commercial vessel support, and defense of a convoy from air and sea attacks.” These were tactical exercises aimed at defending ships in unprotected areas. Sailors kept active helping protect the ships from pirates, while Russian helicopters were employed. Also, air forces attacked the ships. Then Chinese and Russian Marines carried out an exercise aimed at freeing a ship that had been seized by pirates. Finally, a good amount of time was devoted to anti-submarine exercises.
So what does this mean? Not much. The Russian and Chinese high commands, as well as commanders on the scene, emphasized that the exercises were not aimed at a third partner. As the Russian admiral put it, “The training is not aimed against third countries and has no aims other than to strengthen mutual understanding between our state’s navies.” Russia’s defense minister was quick to add that it had nothing to do with the creation of a Chinese-Russian pact.
That language was clearly aimed at the United States. So should we be concerned? No. We have had multiple such exchanges with the Russians and would have had more if the Russians had not run out of money in the 1990s. We are now preparing for the visit of Russian paratroopers — Mos-cow’s best combat troops — for exercises with U.S. troops. This is the first such event, and it will give Russian airborne forces an opportunity to contribute a special task group for exercises with U.S. special service weapons. It is a positive sign in our military-to-military relationship, but like the Russian-Chinese naval action, it does not signify that we are about to become allies.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.