Russia Hosts 'Olympics With Tanks' During Real Thing in Rio

Russia and Kazakhstan welcoming nearly 20 countries for summer Army Olympics.

RAEVSKY BASE, Russia— -- They are being described as the Olympics but with tanks.

Russia’s International Army Games are running almost simultaneously with the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Unlike the Brazilian event, however, competitors are not sportsmen but military personnel trying to best each other in driving heavy armor and completing special forces tasks.

Russia’s Defense ministry launched the games for the first time in 2015 and Russian military commanders this year have been publicly pressing comparisons of the event with the Olympics (from which Russia was almost excluded over systemic doping among its athletes).

“The goal of any games is the same: bringing people closer together, in a competitive spirit, and to go beyond yourself and have the strongest win,” Maj. Gen. Andrei Khozalov said after one race.

Russian officials told ABC that they had invited the United States and other NATO countries, who declined.

Military-themed events take place most months, while state media celebrate the armed forces’ prowess and army merchandise has become widespread. A chain of military-owned stores selling fashionable army-branded clothing has sprung up across Moscow, selling everything from hoodies to ski-gear.

Much of the Army Games itself is taking place in the newly constructed Park Patriot, a huge military amusement park opened by the government last year near Moscow.

Russia’s defense spending of $66.5 billion a year is, nonetheless, still a fraction of the United States’, which stood at $596 billion in 2015, according to calculations by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Russia’s real-life military entanglements mean that the games have taken on some macabre overtones, entertaining crowds with tank dances and staging artillery shooting, even as Russia’s armed forces have been pounding the Syrian city of Aleppo with airstrikes, reportedly sometimes hitting hospitals.

Russian state media reported today that Russian aircraft were supporting a new offensive by Syrian government troops seeking to strengthen the siege of the city.