Russian Forces Beating China in Tank Olympics, Hailing Its Kit as "Best in the World"

Tank biathlon
A T-72 tank drives during the Tank Biathlon 2016 competition at the “Stalin Line” memorial, near the village of Goroshki, Belarus, October 22, 2016. Russia is leading China in the marquee event of the army Olympics that its own military invented. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Russia's third annual army Olympic games are well under way, and the home nation's military is leading China in the event's marquee competition—the tank biathlon.

Entering the games hailed as the "best in the world" by army chief Oleg Salyukov, Russia's tanks and their crews are favorites to beat the other 18 countries, with only four days down of the two-week competition. The biathlon is the brainchild of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and tests tank crews on their speed through an obstacle course and the accuracy of their shooting.

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One of Russia's tank crews in the biathlon took the lead early on Sunday with the fastest average time (19 minutes 10 seconds) and a perfect shooting record, hitting all five targets on the first try, state news agency Itar-Tass reported. China's crew—the most likely contender to dethrone the home side and last year's winners—led the rankings until that point with 19 minutes 40 seconds.

Russia's fastest time was a record in the three-year history of the International Army Games, the biathlon's head judge, general major Dmitry Gorbatenko told Tass on Monday. China held the previous record at 21 minute and three seconds, set last year. The tank biathlon competition takes place at Russia's Alabino military training center, and for the first time, three other countries—China, Kazakhstan and Belarus—are taking on some of the hosting duties for other events in the games.

The televised competition is broadcast as entertainment, yet it is also a showcase of military capability for the top states. Russia provides countries who do not bring their own tanks with T-72B3, but it uses the modified T-72BM3, employed by its military, while China shipped its own Type 96 variant tanks and repair crews to Russia. This year India is also bringing its T-90S tanks, which are made in Russia but are operated by the Indian military and an upgrade from the T-72B3.

No NATO countries are competing, something Salyukov said was not out of lack of an invitation, joking that "maybe they are not ready" to face Russia. Salyukov did not specify which countries had been invited and noted that current tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine are likely the cause for their not participating.

Speaking to Newsweek, a NATO official said that the alliance received some invitations to the games but chose not to attend, arguing that "such invitations are no substitute for proper transparency and confidence-building measures—such as OSCE observation of military exercises—which Russia routinely avoids."

"NATO's Military Liaison Mission in Moscow was invited to attend the opening and closing ceremony of the International Army Games, as well as two stages of competition," the official said. "The invitation was declined."

An upcoming drill in Russia's northwest has made NATO allies nervous, with the Baltic states labeling it a "simulation" for an assault on them.