Global warming's melting of polar ice allows 1st commercial container ship to cross Arctic Ocean

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Maritime history was made this month with the passage of the first commercial container ship through the Northern Sea Route of the Arctic Ocean, a route made possible by the melting of Arctic ice.

The Venta Maersk, a new ship loaded with Russian fish and South Korean electronics, left Vladivostok, Russia, at the beginning of September and is expected to arrive in Bremerhaven, Germany, next week, after successfully navigating ice-plagued seas from the Bering Straits north.

The waters at the top of the world have warmed rapidly over the last four decades, at nearly twice the rate of warming in the rest of the world, according to the Arctic Council, an international group that studies the region. The United Nations' panel on climate change says the dramatic warming is unprecedented in human history.

Only a decade ago shipping experts all but ruled out traveling across the Arctic Ocean.

The Venta Maersk, which has protections built in for moving through ice, is owned by the largest container shipping agency in the world, Danish company A.P. Moller Maersk. With its successful Arctic passage, commercial shipping agencies are likely to consider what kind of market might be developed using the Northern Sea Route.

Traveling across the Arctic Ocean can reduce ships' travel time 40 percent by allowing them to go north instead of around southern Asia and through the Suez Canal or past the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. That could mean lower fuel costs, fewer canal transit fees, reduced danger from pirates, and less wear and tear on the vessel.

But commercial customers also demand reliability on delivery dates, and the Northern Sea Route could close quickly if weather suddenly changed, potentially causing a container ship to get stuck in ice until rescued by bigger ice-breakers remains a possibility. Such unpredictability has until now led commercial shipping companies to stay away.

Chinese and Japanese shippers are among those exploring the possible benefits of Arctic Ocean crossings, Frederic Lasserre, a professor at the Universite Laval in Quebec and expert on Arctic shipping, told the EUObserver newspaper.

China has already announced an ambitious plan to create a “polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming. The Arctic Shipping Forum says 300 ships have used the Northern Sea Route, but the Venta Maersk is the first container vessel for commercial shipping to cross.

"In the last two, three years the ice melt in summer has been so extensive that developments are getting very hard to predict. I will not rule out that some shipping agencies may reach the necessary level of flexibility so that they can offer regular container service in the North East Passage during summer within the next 10 years," said Lasserre.


The Venta Maersk is one of seven new vessels that the Maersk company is building for possible use on this route. Each new ship is 650 feet long, 115 feet wide and capable of carrying 3,600 shipping containers through waters frozen with 3 feet of ice.

But the company is so far downplaying the historic trip as a one-off.

"The trial passage will enable us to explore the operational feasibility of container shipping through the Northern Sea Route and to collect data. Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as a commercial alternative to our existing network which is defined by our customers' demand, trading patterns and population centers," a statement from A.P. Moller Maersk says.

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Australia investigates sewing needles in strawberries as consumers advised to cut fruit before eating

iStock/Thinkstock(BRISBANE, Australia) -- Australian authorities have ordered a review into the handling of strawberries after they say fruit containing sewing needles turned up in supermarkets across the country.

Annastacia Palaszczuk, premier of Queensland state, also offered a reward of roughly $72,000 for information leading to the arrest of anyone responsible.

“Whoever is behind this is not just putting families at risk across Queensland and the rest of Australia – they are putting an entire industry at risk,” she said in a statement.

No suspects have been identified.

The first reported case of strawberry contamination sparked national fears last week. Hoani van Dorp went to the hospital with "severe abdominal pain" after swallowing half a sewing needle lodged in a strawberry, according to friend Joshua Gane.

Gane made the allegation in a Facebook post that has been shared thousands of times.

Authorities have not confirmed any injuries or the number of strawberries that have been affected.

The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association described the incident as “extremely disheartening and troubling.”

“Strawberries were interfered with between the time they were packed and the time they were purchased,” it said, also advising purchasers to cut their fruit in half before eating for “peace of mind."

Contaminated strawberries have now been found in supermarkets Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which reported that strawberry growers are using metal detectors to scan their fruit.

Coles and Aldi supermarkets have reportedly pulled all strawberries from their shelves while two of New Zealand’s biggest food companies -- Countdown and Foodstuffs -- have reportedly stopped importing Australian strawberries.

The Queensland Health Department has advised anyone who has bought Berry Obsession and Berry Licious strawberries to destroy or return them after they were pulled from shelves. At least six major brands have been affected, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Minister for Health Greg Hunt announced on Twitter that regulatory body Food Standards Australia New Zealand will investigate.

He tweeted, “I urge all Australians be vigilant for potential contaminants.”

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2018 World's Strongest Storm: Typhoon Mangkhut barrels through Philippines toward China

Jes Aznar/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- The strongest storm on Earth in 2018 barreled through the northern Philippines before dawn on Saturday, bringing with it ferocious winds and torrential rain.

Typhoon Mangkhut, known locally as Ompong, made landfall in Cagayan province on northeast Luzon island at 1:40 a.m. local time, according to the country's weather agency, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration. It's estimated that the tropical cyclone put at least five million people at risk.

Mangkhut, considered the strongest storm on the planet so far this year, was the 15th to hit the Philippines. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center U.S. Navy-U.S. Air Force command, located in Hawaii, had downgraded Mangkhut from a "super typhoon" prior to landfall, when it had peak wind speeds of 180 mph.

Mangkhut weakened slightly as it reached Luzon's mountainous coastline early Saturday morning; however, it was still packing winds equivalent to a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale.

Its tropical storm-force winds extended 550 miles across, according to the country's weather agency, making it nearly double the size of Florence, the hurricane-turned-tropical storm that made landfall over the southeastern United States on Friday.

Mangkhut's high winds churned rough seas as it moved across Luzon, producing waves nearly 30 feet high, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The heavy rain triggered landslides that reportedly claimed the lives of several people in the area.

Images from hard-hit areas in Cagayan province show countless downed trees and toppled power lines, blown out buildings and debris strewn across roadways.

Global nonprofit Oxfam said it deployed teams of responders to the area to assess the damage and provide disaster relief.

"The situation is very bad," Oxfam's April Abello-Bulanadi said in a statement from Tuguegarao City. "The winds are howling and we can feel the destructive force of Ompong. The roof of the hotel where the response team convened has been blown away. We are on the third floor. The walls and ceiling are shaking. It has been raining nonstop."

Mangkhut has been tracked northwestward at about 16 mph over the past six hours, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

The cyclone is forecast to make another landfall over southeastern China, just west of Hong Kong on Sunday, and will ultimately dissipate over the rugged terrain.

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South Korean president to fly to North Korea for first time to continue nuclear talks

iStock/Thinkstock(SEOUL) -- South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, is expected to fly to Pyongyang for the first time next week in hopes of accelerating international efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

"At this stage, I believe it is most important to put a complete end to military tensions between North and South, or possibility of military conflict, or war threat," Moon told reporters Thursday.

It will be the third summit this year between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The first two meetings -- in April and May -- took place at Panmunjom, which separates the two Koreas.

Moon and the South Korean delegation will fly directly to Pyongyang using the Western air route, Moon's office said, adding that an advance team will take the land route to Pyongyang on Sunday for preparations. Next week's summit is set to take place from Tuesday to Thursday. Key parts of the three-day trip will also be broadcast live.

At the top of the agenda is defusing military tensions, Moon said during a meeting Thursday with his special advisers.

Moon is also eager to mediate differences between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in order to bring the denuclearization process back on track. The third inter-Korean summit has been planned as denuclearization discussion between the United States and North Korea have faltered.

"I believe finding an intersecting point to restart the dialogue and let denuclearization to take place promptly, is the role [South Korea] must serve in the middle," Moon said.

Moon Chung-in, an adviser in the South Korean presidential office, also explained during a briefing with foreign journalists that the president will want his North Korean counterpart to seek "bold and imaginative approaches" that go beyond just freezing of the North's nuclear program and involve a declaration, inspection and verification process.

"President Moon will be placing the utmost impetus on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, he will try to play role of a facilitator or a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington," the top adviser told reporters.

Next week’s summit will mark the fifth inter-Korean meeting. The late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il invited South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to Pyongyang in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007.

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Bin Laden raid commander resigns from Pentagon board after criticizing Trump

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call(WASHINGTON) -- Retired Adm. William "Bill" McRaven, who led the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, resigned from his post on the Pentagon's Defense Innovation Board last month, just days after he publicly criticized President Donald Trump, the Pentagon confirmed Thursday.

"I can confirm that Admiral (Ret.) William H. McRaven resigned from the Defense Innovation Board, effective Aug. 20, 2018,” Heather Babb, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, told ABC News on Thursday. "The department appreciates his service and contribution on the board."

The Defense Innovation Board is an independent advisory committee to the Pentagon specializing in issues related to technology and innovation.

His resignation was first reported by Defense News on Thursday.

The resignation came four days after he criticized the president for revoking the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, whom McRaven called "one of the finest public servants" he’d "ever known."

"Few Americans have done more to protect this country than John. He is a man of unparalleled integrity, whose honesty and character have never been in question, except by those who don’t know him," McRaven, the former head of Special Operations Command, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post last month. "Therefore, I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency."

"Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation," McRaven added in the op-ed.

The retired admiral, who led the Joint Special Operations Command from 2011 to 2014, noted that he had criticized Trump in the past and hoped to see Trump "rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs."

"A good leader tries to embody the best qualities of his or her organization. A good leader sets the example for others to follow," McRaven wrote. "A good leader always puts the welfare of others before himself or herself. Your leadership, however, has shown little of these qualities."

McRaven oversaw the 2011 mission that killed the former head of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan.

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China joins the close of Russia's spectacular 'war games'

Satellite image (c)2018 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company(TSUGOL, Russia) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday watched a huge simulated battle put on by Russian and Chinese troops, as he attended the largest so-called war games in his country’s history.

Putin attended the climax of the Vostok or “East” 2018 exercises that have been held across Russia’s far eastern regions this week.

After the mock battle, Putin oversaw a vast combined military parade of Russian and Chinese troops, who joined the exercise for the first time.

The military spectacle was a remarkable instance of Russian and Chinese cooperation and one that seemed intended as a coordinated attempt to promote both countries’ ambitions to be dominant global powers.

The elaborate display took place at Tsugol training range close to the Russian city of Chita, roughly 3,600 miles from Moscow. There, just north of Mongolia, a neat, square battle camp had been constructed, divided into Russian and Chinese sections.

Russia’s military has said the Vostok drills are of unprecedented scale, involving 300,000 troops and over 36,000 tanks.

Many experts have said those numbers are heavily exaggerated, however. But Thursday’s exercise was clearly intended to impress with size. Dozens of helicopters and hundreds of tanks took part in the mock battle.

The scenario called for mixed Russian and Chinese forces to fight over a river crossing. Watched by Putin from an observation tower, waves of helicopters launched the battle.

Chinese fighting vehicles drove into the field, as Russian Ka-52 and Mi-24 gunships strafed. Forty-two warplanes later joined the bombardment, along with artillery and multiple-rocket launchers. Ash and acrid smoke from the blast floated back onto the spectators.

The display seemed larger than that at the Zapad war games last year that alarmed parts of Europe.

More symbolically striking than the battle was the parade recalling those that Putin watches in Red Square but here was held on an empty plain.

Hundreds of tanks and trucks stood in massed ranks, as dozens more paraded past. A band played mostly Russian (or rather Soviet) marches.

Standing on a grandstand, Putin— who had flown to the exercises after hosting China’s president Xi Jing Ping in Vladivostok— hailed the troops for ensuring a common “Eurasian security”.

“Russia is a peace-loving country,” Putin said, adding it could never have aggressive plans. But it would continue to develop its military, he said, to be able to defend itself and its allies.

A Chinese commander, Lt. Gen. Sho Yuanmin, speaking to journalists afterward, said military cooperation was now constant between Russia and China, and enthused over the opportunity to learn from Russia’s more experienced troops.

But experts are skeptical of how deep the warm feeling goes, noting both sides, in reality, are wary after decades of rivalry that saw the countries almost fight a war in 1969.

The military power displayed was also thinner than it was presented, some experts said.

Considerable effort had gone into the spectacle. Tanks and trucks had been parked artfully in lines across the hills behind the main parade to give the impression that the army stretched on and on.

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Russians accused of poisoning Skripals say they were in Salisbury to visit cathedral

RT(SALISBURY, England) -- Two men accused of poisoning ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury have denied carrying out the attack and said they were just visiting the town to see the cathedral in an interview with Kremlin-funded news channel RT.

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov confirmed they are the men accused of carrying out the attack in the interview with RT. Boshirov also called on the U.K. to apologize for the allegations, claiming that their lives had been "turned upside down."

"We’re afraid of going out. We fear for ourselves, our lives and lives of our loved ones," Boshirov told RT.

Petrov and Boshirov claim to have been visiting the "wonderful town" of Salisbury, England, to see its famous cathedral. But British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement to the House of Commons last week that the Russian nationals were wanted for the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and attending police officer Nick Bailey on March 4.

The British government believes the men sprayed the front door of the Skripals' front door with the highly toxic Novichok nerve agent before returning to London and flying to Moscow that same evening. The Skripals were found collapsed on a park bench at 4:15 p.m. Both survived after long stays in the hospital.

Speaking at an economic forum in Eastern Russia on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russian authorities were aware of who the suspects were, but dismissed British claims they were linked to the GRU, Russia's foreign military intelligence agency. They were "civilians," Putin said, before encouraging them to come forward and speak to the media.

British police said in a statement that on March 3 -- the day before the Skripals fell ill -- the two men were on a "reconnaissance trip."

In the interview with RT, Boshirov denied those claims, saying they had traveled that day to see Stonehenge, but "couldn’t do it" because "the town was covered by this slush. We got wet, took the nearest train and came back to London."

Boshirov added that maybe they did approach Skripal's house, "but we don’t know where is it located."

When asked about the Nina Ricci perfume bottle allegedly used to spray the Novichok nerve agent on the Skripals front door, Boshirov said the pair didn't have it.

"Isn't it silly for decent lads to have women’s perfume? The customs are checking everything; they would have questions as to why men have women’s perfume in their luggage. We didn’t have it," Boshirov told RT.

The pair were interviewed by Margarita Simonyan, RT's editor-in-chief. Simonyan tweeted in Russian earlier that Petrov and Boshirov had "refused to give interviews to anyone else, not even our journalists, as they said, they know me on the air and read my social networks and therefore, again they said they trust me."

After a six-month investigation, Scotland Yard released a detailed account of the pair's alleged movements from March 2 to March 4.

CCTV footage shows Petrov and Boshirov, who traveled on Russian passports and were previously believed to have used aliases, arriving in the U.K. on Friday evening on an Aeroflot flight into London's Gatwick airport. On Sunday, images show the pair in Salisbury town center, near the Skripals' house.

In the House of Commons last week, May said the attack was "almost certainly" approved "at a senior level of the Russian state." An Interpol red notice and a European arrest warrant were issued, but extradition is impossible as it is forbidden by the Russian state.

A spokesperson for the U.K. Home Office said the men are the "prime suspects."

"The Police and Crown Prosecution Service have identified these men as the prime suspects in relation to the attack in Salisbury," the spokesperson said. "The government is clear these men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service -- the GRU -- who used a devastatingly toxic, illegal chemical weapon on the streets of our country. We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March. Today -- just as we have seen throughout -- they have responded with obfuscation and lies."

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Sen. Chris Murphy: U.S. 'turning a blind eye to likely war crimes' in Yemen

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress late Tuesday that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are taking "demonstrable actions" to minimize civilian casualties in their war against Houthi rebels in Yemen -- in a certification required by law.

But to critics, his words are, to a certain extent, refuted by the State Department's own report, an unclassified version that was obtained by ABC News.

The certification from Pompeo means that the U.S. will continue to assist the Saudi-led coalition with mid-air refueling for its war planes. But it comes amid mounting pressure from Congress and the public to withdraw the U.S. support that includes not just refueling jets, but also sharing intelligence and selling advanced weaponry.

Saudi Arabia and UAE have been fighting in Yemen since 2015, when the Houthis -- an Iranian-backed Shia group -- took control of the government in the capital, Sanaa, and ousted the government. A brutal civil war, the conflict has raged for three years now with allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes on both sides -- but, in particular, the Saudis, Emiratis and their Yemeni government allies are responsible for "most direct civilian casualties," according to a United Nations report last month that accused them of targeting residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.

The backlash in the U.S. to the American military's support for both countries led to a provision in this year's defense spending bill that required the administration to brief Congress within 30 days on the war, and certify that the Saudis and Emiratis were taking steps to minimize civilian casualties and implement a peace process.

But while the State Department report said the two countries are in fact "taking appropriate steps to avoid disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure," it's unclear to which recent steps it's referring.

Outrage has grown over the coalition's bombing campaign after it hit a school bus and killed more than 40 children and several adults on Aug. 9, and then dozens of children and women in another bombardment a week later.

In particular, the report said the Saudis "incorporated a no-strike list into its target development procedures." But the Saudis have lauded their no-strike list since at least May 2017, when a Saudi embassy press release listed it as one of "several steps" taken to "create a more thorough vetting process for target selection." The list included 33,000 targets at the time, the embassy said.

The State Department report also references a U.S. government course to the Royal Saudi Air Force "that included training on the law of armed conflict and air-to-ground targeting processes," but that course was delivered in May 2017, according to the report.

Instead, the report itself admits "recent civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting practices."

A State Department official would not comment on the contents of the certification report but did point to the coalition's investigation of the Aug. 9 bombing.

"That investigation led to the coalition admitting it made errors," the official told ABC News, and the coalition is now "reviewing its rules of engagement, will hold those at fault accountable and compensate victims of the Aug. 9 air strikes in Sa'ada that tragically killed children on a school bus."

But the department's report also showed that, so far, "investigations have not yielded accountability measures."

Critics have said the administration is loath to criticize the Saudis, even in a spat between Canada and the kingdom over human rights.

"They've got a bad set of facts, but they don't care about that. They are singularly focused on having the Saudis be a buffer to Iran, and that has been this administration's policy since the president took office," Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told ABC News. "The casualty of that is Yemeni civilians."

The Saudis, however, said they have taken steps, including finding fault during their investigation of the school bus bombing. They have also maintained that the Houthis are a legitimate threat to Saudis, pointing to rocket attacks, including a handful that have come close to Riyadh's airport.

"What Pompeo said is actually accurate, despite all the naysayers. A huge effort is being made to improve targeting and work to avoid such accidents, and the U.S. is very aware of that," Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation in Washington, which has close ties to the kingdom, said in an email.

By Wednesday, the Trump administration was obligated to provide a briefing to Congress on the conflict, including the successes of the Saudi and Emirati military campaign, the Houthi rebels' human rights abuses and sources of support, and the impact on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- widely seen as the most dangerous branch of the terror group.

While the deadline for that classified briefing was Wednesday, it's actually scheduled for Sept. 20, according to two Congressional aides and a State Department official.

But several lawmakers are already up in arms over the certification.

"We need to hold our allies to a higher standard and, unfortunately, this certification fails in that regard," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who co-authored the section of the defense bill that created the reporting requirements. "It is evident that the administration is deliberately sidestepping congressional oversight."

Her Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, expressed urgency this week in a joint op-ed with Shaheen. His office did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who opposed U.S. arms for the Saudi campaign virtually from the start of the conflict -- and who, at one time, held up arms sales to the country -- also declined to comment.

Democrats had sharp words for the administration.

"How can the Trump administration deny what everyone can see with our own two eyes?" Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement. "These certifications are a farce, and we should all be ashamed that our government is turning a blind eye to likely war crimes."

There is also movement to do something about it. In her statement, Shaheen pointed to certification deadlines in 180 and 360 days, when the administration must again certify that Saudi Arabia and UAE are taking steps to reduce civilian casualties and end the war.

But other lawmakers don't want to wait.

Last year, Khanna was the sole sponsor of a war powers resolution to withdraw U.S. forces from any role in the Yemeni conflict. Now, he is set to introduce the same bill with the ranking members of the House Armed Services Committee and Rules Committee as co-sponsors, among eight others.

Last March, a similar vote died in the Senate, but it did garner 44 votes, including from five Republicans.

With the Democrats hoping to take back the House in November's midterm elections, the legislation could be top of list for the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Pentagon's budget.

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Pussy Riot member in critical condition after suspected poisoning

Taylor Hill/WireImage(MOSCOW) -- A member of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot was listed in critical condition on Wednesday after possibly being poisoned, according to the band.

Pyotr Verzilov was rushed to a Moscow hospital late Tuesday after he reportedly lost his eyesight and speaking ability.

"His life is in danger. We think that he was poisoned," the band, known for its colorful masks and controversial protests of the Russian government, tweeted Wednesday.

Verzilov fell ill after a court hearing on Tuesday and later was taken to the toxicology ward of the Bakhrushin City Clinical Hospital in Moscow, according to his girlfriend.

"When the paramedics arrived, he answered all their questions, saying, 'No, I didn't eat anything. No, I didn't take anything,'" Verzilov's girlfriend, Veronika Nikulshina, told the Russian media outlet Meduza on Wednesday. "He was getting worse even faster, and then he started convulsing."

"On the way, in the ambulance, he was already babbling," Nikulshina said, adding, "He fell into such a half-asleep, half-unconscious state that he stopped responding to me and didn't even recognize me anymore."

Verzilov's current condition is unknown, according to the Meduza report.

Verzilov and fellow Pussy Riot members Nikulshina, Olga Kurachyova and Olga Pakhtusova were detained for 15 days after staging a pitch invasion of the World Cup final in July.

The group said the demonstration was intended to protest the roles of the police and courts in the political persecution of opponents of the Kremlin.

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Inside the massive Russian ‘war games’ involving 300,000 troops

iStock/Thinkstock(TELEMBA, Russia) -- The huge war games that Russia is holding this week are taking place across the vast wilderness of the country’s Far East, close to the borders of Mongolia and China.

The drills —- called Vostok 2018 –- are being touted by Russia's military as the largest in its history, involving a staggering 300,000 troops, almost 1,000 aircraft and over 36,000 tanks and armored vehicles.

Located across nine training ranges and three seas off Russia's eastern coast, the war games began to swing into higher gear on Tuesday, with troops maneuvering in the taiga, or snow forest, and Russian warships practicing missile launches.

Russian air defense units fought a simulated battle against warplanes over a forested plateau in Buryatia, a Buddhist region located roughly 3,600 miles from Moscow and a few hundred miles north of Mongolia.

The drills are meant to stretch the Russian military’s ability to operate over the country’s huge, inhospitable distances. Buryatia provides plentiful opportunity for that.

The anti-air exercise site was a four-hour drive down a jolting mud road, through the blackwater swamps and flaming yellow trees that have grown up out of the taiga, where autumn is already turning to winter.

Misty grey clouds hung in front of the observation post looking over the forest where Russian anti-air batteries sat. Some of Russia’s most advanced anti-air weapons were concealed in the forest undergrowth, among them the S400 anti-air missile system at the center of a diplomatic spat with the U.S. over Russia's plans to sell it to Turkey.

A bus-sized radar dish daubed in thick, green paint rotated rapidly on the hill, among several others.

After a few minutes, ground-to-air missiles began lifting off as brilliant white flares in the distance, billowing mist beneath them, then sliding easily upward into the gloom. Overhead, warplanes and cruise missiles could be heard rumbling.

Afterwards, the Russian commanders informed journalists that the drill had been entirely successful, blocking all 30 targets.

There was no way to verify that claim and the uncertainty echoed a larger one hanging over the exercises as a whole. Few experts believe that 300,000 troops are actually taking part, saying Russia lacks the capacity to move such numbers. Others have suggested obsolete tanks have been pressed into service to inflate the numbers.

There is no doubt, however, that the drills are large, taking in a striking range of forces over huge distances. What is clear is the Kremlin’s desire to use the exercises to promote itself as a military super power.

China's first-time participation in the drills, which were established under the Soviet Union, has been hailed in Russia as a sign of its restored importance in international security, as well as a symbol of the two countries' closeness.

The Kremlin has downplayed the war games as routine -- even as its media has trumpeted them -- and has insisted they are not intended to combat any real-world opponent.

Experts are confident, though, about the intended opponent in the mock drills. Pavel Felgengauer, a well-known defense commentator, said that, as with the Cold War exercises, Vostok is meant to test Russia’s military’s capacity to fight a major war with the United States.

Russia’s defense ministry has been making explicit comparisons with "Zapad 81," vast war games held by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries on Russia’s Western border in 1981. Russia’s military says this year’s Vostok surpasses those games in scale.

The reasons for past war games varied, experts said. Besides the obvious military benefits, several suggested their real purpose was political.

The main maneuvers of the war games are expected to take place on Thursday, when president Vladimir Putin is due to observe at the Tsugol range, where China’s 3,200-strong troop contingent are mostly based. Putin will arrive on the heels of hosting China’s leader XI Jing Ping at the Vladivostok Economic Forum.

The timing of the two events appears intended to promote growing ties between the two countries.

But many experts are skeptical about how significant the joint exercises are in this respect.

Instead, some noted that the huge war games underline the limitations of Russia's foreign policy tools for exerting influence currently.

"Russia’s claim to retaining the mantle of 'great power' is today backed up almost solely by its military force," Pavel Baev, an analyst, wrote in a recent Jamestown Foundation article.

Noting that Russia’s economy and technology development are battered by poor investment and inefficiencies, and that the country is locked in increasing confrontations with the West, he said the Kremlin was often finding itself constrained in foreign policy to a threatening one-note diplomacy.

Those limitations probably hold with China too, he said, despite the rhetoric.

"In real terms," he wrote. "This much-trumpeted relationship is rather ambiguous."

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