The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia holds its first International Army Games

Russian Sukhoi Su-25 "Frogfoot" ground-attack planes perform during the Aviadarts military aviation competition at the Dubrovichi range near Ryazan, Russia, on Aug. 2. The aviation contest is part of the International Army Games, held in Russia Aug. 1-15, with participants from 17 countries, according to organizers. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

MOSCOW — You might call it the war Olympics.

Russia opened its first International Military Games last week, a medley of martial sports designed to highlight Russia's military prowess as it competes against 16 other countries, including prominent importers of its weapons like China and India. None of the participants are members of NATO.

There is the tank biathlon, a combined obstacle course and shooting range that vaguely resembles the Winter sport popular in Nordic countries. In aviadarts, fighter jets and military helicopters compete to perform the most accurate aerial bombardment. Other events are self-explanatory, like "Masters of Artillery Fire."

Unsurprisingly, Russia, which invented most of the 13 events, is in first place.

The games are just one in a series of events and celebrations in Russia to promote the military since the Russian annexation of Crimea last March and the collapse of relations with the West. President Vladimir V. Putin has championed a 22-trillion ruble ($343 billion) program to modernize Russia's military, which he has presented to the country as a guarantor of Russia's security from NATO. Russia's military has been on near-constant alert this year, holding massive training drills as tensions have risen with the West over the war in Ukraine.

Some of the recent advances in Russia's military have been notable, like the expertly-trained spetsnaz units without identifying marks that seized the airport and other infrastructure in Crimea last March. At this year's celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany, Russia unveiled a new battle tank with a remote-controlled turret considered one of the most advanced in the world (though one of the tanks stalled during the ceremony).

But there is also an element of media savvy: Russia's army has branched out into public relations to raise its public profile. The army is opening a patriotic theme park next year. It has a new clothing store on Tverskaya Street, Moscow's Fifth Avenue, that sells gold iPhones and leather jackets depicting the storming of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. And the army has launched its own television station, Zvezda, which means Star, that broadcasts patriotic programming and news reports from east Ukraine that favor pro-Russian separatists there.

Private businesses have also sought to cash in on patriotism. Tourists arriving at some of Moscow's airports are greeted by a souvenir stand with a cardboard cutout of a "polite person," the Russian soldiers in Crimea. Vending machines carry Vladimir Putin T-shirts.

Dmitry Rogozin, the hawkish deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry, captured the zeitgeist when he dismissed Western concerns about Russia. "Tanks don't need visas!" he said.

Russia held its first tank biathlon in 2013. It was said to be the brainchild of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the country's most popular officials. It followed Russia's other contribution to tanking sports, the Tank Ballet.

Other events at the army games test the skills of paratroopers, mechanics, pilots and even field cooks.

Not everything has gone smoothly this year. A pilot was killed when a Mi-28 helicopter crashed last Sunday during the aviadarts competition. And a Kuwaiti crew flipped their tank while attempting to skid around a turn during the tank biathlon, prompting one spectator to belt out a string of profanity in Russian. The crew were not seriously injured, Russian media reported.

Russia's military modernization still faces serious hurdles. First, the value of the ruble has plummeted this year under pressure from sanctions and falling oil prices, cutting the value of the budget for modernization nearly in half. Second, the war in Ukraine and sanctions in the West have cut Russia off from its sources of microchips and other military supplies.

That is unlikely, however, to affect its performance in the military games, which are fairly low-tech.

Lt. Gen. Ivan Buvaltsev, head of training for Russia's military, issued a challenge for NATO countries to join the games next year, saying Russia would be waiting "with arms wide open."