It was meant to be a celebration of peace, love and tanks as former cold war foes raced through obstacles and fired at targets.
Instead, Russia’s tank biathlon world championship, which started on Monday at testing grounds outside Moscow, featured teams from the former USSR and its allies but no Nato countries. The competition follows a new low in relations with the US and European Union, which last week introduced “tier-three” sanctions against sectors of Russia’s economy over the Ukraine crisis.
The defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, who started the competition as a way to raise the prestige of Russia’s armed forces, said after the inaugural showdown in 2013 between Russia, Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan that the next competition would feature countries from outside the former Soviet Union, including Italy and Germany. Speaking in Washington in August 2013, Shoigu even said the US military had agreed to participate.
But after a year of diplomatic conflicts with the US and Europe over whistleblower Edward Snowden, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, no western countries showed up for the party. Shoigu nonetheless called the event a “new page in international military cooperation”. The 12 countries participating were Angola, Armenia, Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, Serbia and Venezuela.
Teams have to race through a 20km obstacle course in Russian-made T-72B tanks, pausing to fire at targets imitating tanks and helicopters. China brought its own 96A tanks. Russia also planned to show off its air power at the event by having Su-25 fighter jets and Mi-28N and Mi-24 helicopters fire rockets and cannons at ground-based targets.
At the competition on Monday, fans chanted “Russia!” as the home team tore across the finish line, the left front bumper of its tank crumpled from an impact with an obstacle.
Alec Luhn in Moscow