The eyes of the diplomatic and sporting worlds might be on the Summer Olympic games now in Brazil, but there’s another international sporting event underway 9,000 miles way in Russia: The International Army Games, informally described as the military Olympics.
If the Olympics symbolize peace and brotherhood, Russia means its army games to signify the opposite. Nor is the timing—and the games’ overlap with the Olympics—coincidental. I came across the International Army Games while going through the Persian-language Iranian press. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, paramilitary Basij, and regular Iranian army have sent seven teams to compete in everything from airborne assault to sniping to underwater operations.
Almost two dozen other countries are also participating in a total of 23 competitions hosted across Russia and Kazakhstan. American policymakers should pay attention to those participating countries because they symbolize the informal anti-American alliance which the Kremlin has spent years piecing together: Russia, China, Venezuela, Belarus, Armenia, Angola, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Nicaragua, among others. The list also includes countries that Russia aspires to bring back to its fold, which once sought greater ties to the West: Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Egypt for example, all of which Western diplomats have singled out for human rights criticism but Russia has been willing to court with open arms and cold, hard cash. A number of Middle Eastern states are also participating—Kuwait, Morocco, and Qatar—for example, but even more are sending observer teams: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Israel. (Qatar does not appear on the website as participating, but photos clearly show Qatar participants).
This should serve as a warning: While states like Morocco and Israel will continue to tie themselves to the West, the fact that so many wish to hedge their bets reflects a recognition that the idea of an alliance with the United States does not mean as much as it did in the past. Eight years of bashing allies and coddling adversaries does have an impact on diplomatic alliances. Likewise, the games should be a wake-up call to American policymakers who see Russia’s military ties with various countries as driven only by a desire to cultivate markets for arms sales. Military exercises are about building people-to-people contact and catalyzing relationships which can, in theory, pay dividends for decades. Only a fool would shrug off the fact that Russian, Iranian, and Chinese Special Forces are interacting in such a venue.