Russia Defense Watch: Flexing Arctic power

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  June 11, 2008 at 6:43 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 11 (UPI) -- Russian President-turned-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has wasted no time in launching the next stage of his drive to restructure and revive the long-troubled Russian defense industry.

Still settling into his second stint as Russia's prime minister -- the first was in the fall of 1999 -- Putin Tuesday announced that long-term contracts and establishing a stable price base that was not undermined by inflation were essential for long-term defense industry procurement and planning.

Putin was speaking at a conference in Novo-Ogaryovo to discuss and plan for Russian Defense Ministry orders in the three-year period, 2009-2011, RIA Novosti reported Tuesday.

"We need to switch over to long-term contracts with arms and equipment suppliers," Putin said according to the report. "Prices (for weapons and military equipment) should be stable."

"Inflation is certainly a problem, but there must be no anarchy (in military procurement deals)," he said. "We are in fact talking about the financial basis for the development of our Armed Forces, their modernization and training."

Putin during his last year as president of Russia presided over a gigantic restructuring and rationalization of Russia's military-industrial sector. But despite abundant petro-currency resources into the Russian military-industrial sector, it has still been bedeviled by endless production bottlenecks, limited production capacity and enormous delays in producing significant quantities of new high-tech weapons for operational use. These problems have wrecked, or forced difficult negotiations, in orders with such countries as China, India and Algeria.

Russian military ready to defend Northern assets

Russia's ocean-going navy today is tiny compared with the massive global presence of the Soviet fleet in the later decades of the Cold War, but it is determined to re-establish its presence in three of the world's oceans in the coming years, a top Defense Ministry general said this week.

Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the combat training directorate of the Russian Defense Ministry, said the navy would carry out an ambitious program of exercises in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans through the second half of this year, RIA Novosti reported Tuesday.

"The summer training program (from June 1 to Dec. 1) envisions the increased presence of the Russian Navy not only in the Atlantic but also in the Arctic and the Pacific," Shamanov said, according to the report.

"We are also planning to increase the operational radius of the Northern Fleet's submarines," he said.

Shamanov's comments appeared to reflect the remarkable change in direction that global warming is having on Russia's long-term strategic planning. Unprecedented warmer weather in the far north has led to record melting of the Arctic ice cap, making the economic exploitation of virgin oil, natural gas and precious minerals on the Arctic continental shelf practical for the first time.

RIA Novosti cited Shamanov as saying Russia was considering redirecting its military strategy to concentrate on the far north. Russia analysts in recent months have repeatedly expressed concern that the United States and other powers could lay claim to vast energy deposits off their shores before they could themselves.

"We have a number of highly professional military units in the Leningrad, Siberian and Far Eastern military districts, which are specifically trained for combat in Arctic regions," Shamanov said.

RIA Novosti noted that the internationally recognized Law of the Sea allows nations to maintain sovereignty over waters and sea floors 200 nautical miles out from their coasts, but in the case of continental shelves that reach far out into the ocean, as some Arctic sea floors do, this sovereignty can be significantly extended.

RIA Novosti noted that in August 2007 two Russian mini-subs made a voyage to the sea floor at the North Pole to strengthen Russia's legal right to the Lomonosov Ridge region. The Kremlin asserted its right to the territory in 2001, but the United Nations refused to recognize it.

Bears spread wings over Arctic

Russia has acted to back up its claims to the Arctic by asserting a real military presence there.

Two venerable Tupolev Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers carried out a 20-hour mission over the Arctic Ocean, RIA Novosti reported.

"After completing an almost 20-hour flight, the crews returned to the airbase in Engels. During air patrols, the Russian planes were accompanied by NATO fighters," Lt. Col. Vladimir Drik said. The bombers flew from Engels airbase near Saratov in southern Russia, he said.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the renewal of strategic bomber flights over the Arctic in August 2007, RIA Novosti said. Such flights were commonplace during the Cold War but following the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the practice was discontinued for more than 15 years.

The Tu-95 patrol looks like being the first of many. Russian air force commander three-star Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin pledged in April that Russia was going to dramatically boost the frequency of its strategic patrol flights as quickly as possible to an average of 20-30 per month, the RIA Novosti report said.

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