WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has enjoyed extraordinary success in rebuilding his shattered country over the past four years, but the humiliating public fiasco of two failed missile launches in a single naval exercise this week shows he still has very far to go.
The military exercises in the Barents Sea were intensely ambitious and involved the test firing of several nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles. But in a test Tuesday, one missile to be launched from the nuclear submarine Novomoskovsk either failed to fire, or even worse, fell apart right after it was launched.
Russian Navy sources later cited by the official RIA Novosti news agency and the private, but still respectful, Interfax agency said the missiles were never actually launched but the exercise was aborted through an automatic shutdown transmitted by satellite relay. Later, yet another conflicting explanation was floated: the launch was never intended to be "actual" but was only "a "virtual" or cybernetic test.
Wednesday, however, another Typhoon class strategic nuclear sub, the Karelia launched a very real ICBM. But it then developed erratic fluctuations and self-destructed, according to Russian accounts.
The problems could not have come at a more embarrassing moment for the Russian Navy. Putin, proudly clad in naval officer's gear and insignia, was observing the exercises in person.
Contrary to some media speculation, the problems with the missile launches look unlikely to make any serious dent in Putin's overwhelming personal popularity or his prospects for a first-round romp to victory for a second successive term of office in Russia's presidential elections scheduled for March 14.
Polls show the president with a commanding 70 to 80 percent of the vote and the only serious candidate. Wages have been paid regularly throughout his term of office and Russia's currency has retained its value. The country still has a vast way to go to make up for the catastrophic collapse in general standards of living under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, but the trend has been steadily positive throughout his first four years in power.
Also, Russia has established a secure and respected role in the world. The alarming rapid drift toward the literal disintegration of the country under Yeltsin and his predecessor, last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, has been energetically and successfully reversed. It will take more than embarrassing snafus in a naval exercise to seriously dent that record of achievement.
But the exercises still meant a lot to Putin. He did not remotely need them to get re-elected, but there was a strong element of self-congratulation and celebration surrounding them and his high-profile involvement. They were clearly meant to put the seal on his efforts to restore Russia's pride and power over his first presidential term. He made sure they were heavily covered by state television. When the first missile failed to fire Tuesday, Channel 1 TV in Moscow never referred to the incidents at all. Instead, they showed Putin meeting with senior naval officers during the exercises.
However, the problems highlighted the degree to which Russia's strategic military power continues to erode because it lacks the industrial base and modern high-tech resources necessary to maintain it.
Pavel Felgenhauer, one of Russia's most respected and influential military analysts, predicted in a Moscow Times analysis published Tuesday that many of these problems might be revealed during the tests.
"The nuclear forces are armed with very old ICBMs," he wrote. "Some have been in service in underground silos for over 27 years. ... The number of ICBM replacements is inadequate. Each year the ICBM inventory is getting older and older. The life span of most Russian ICBMs, as guaranteed by their producers, has long since expired."
Indeed, one of the missiles that failed to fire was reported to be a RSM-53 -- NATO designation SS-N-23 -- that was first developed in 1979 and phased into service more than 20 years ago.
Felgenhauer had a very different take on the exercises than the image of a reviving, still potent Russia that Putin wanted to project. "The main point of the exercise is to test aging ICBMs and bombers and the war game scenario is also antiquated, involving the West (the United States) as the potential foe," he wrote.
"The military is caught in a time warp: Its hardware is old, its strategic ideas are outdated, it does not want to change nor does it seem able to -- irrespective of what happens politically in Russia or the world."
There was another reason the exercise was held, Felgenhauer said.
"If a test firing of an aging ICBM is successful, the warranted life span of all the other ICBMs of the same class is extended by a year. Typically, one of the oldest ICBMs of a class is launched every year. If the launch fails or there are serious problems, it is repeated. ... That is how it has been now for a decade."
Putin lost no time after Tuesday's failures to try to focus his people's attention on the future renewal of their military might rather than its still enfeebled condition. Speaking at the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia Wednesday, he announced ambitious plans to upgrade Russia's Strategic Missile Forces with a new generation of weapons and said he was considering building new anti-ballistic missile, or ABM defense systems, such as the one the Bush administration is now developing for the United States.
But such weapons are years, if not a decade away. This week's problems and failures in the Barents Sea show that Russia has far to go before reclaiming its old, formidable place in the world.