WASHINGTON, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- The announcement Saturday by President Vladimir Putin that Russia has launched a vast program to improve the country's missile defense system is being presented as a response to American plans to deploy a similar new U.S. anti-missile system in Eastern Europe.
But it comes in the context of other recent Russian steps that suggest a determined and coordinated effort by the Kremlin to assert a return to great-power status by restoring much of the military power of the old Soviet Union. To suspicious observers in the West and to U.S. military commanders who must make their own strategic assessments based on the capabilities of potential rivals, it must look as if the Russian bear is back.
In one crucial sense, the bear never went away. Although Russia’s navy has been rusting in dock for more than a decade, and though its army has shrunk in size and very nearly collapsed in morale after its setbacks in the Chechen wars, the nuclear-armed strategic rocket forces have retained much of their traditional power to awe and to deter. Russia remains the only country that could, in theory, destroy organized life in the United States.
But something new is happening. Russia is rattling its sabers again. Last week’s planting of a titanium flag on the seabed below the North Pole was one sign. Another was the resumption of long-haul missions into U.S. and NATO-controlled airspace by Russia’s strategic bombers. Two T-95MS ‘Bear’ turboprop bombers last week flew over the Pacific island of Guam, where the United States is upgrading its air and naval bases.
"It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet (U.S.) aircraft carriers and greet American pilots visually," Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov told a Moscow news conference. But that tradition was in abeyance in the 1990s, when the Russian military was short of aviation fuel and training flights were cut drastically. Under Putin, all that has changed.
Another bomber crew from Engels Air Base in southwest Russia flew to a test range in northern Siberia, hit the assigned targets with cruise missiles and then flew another 3,000 miles to land at a base near the Pacific coast, an air force spokesman said. Engels is one of the main bases for the most modern of Russian bombers, the supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack, known to Russians as the white swan, which holds a special place in Putin’s affections since he took a five-hour flight with one of the Engels crews.
Yet a further signal of Russia’s bold new strategic posture was the announcement by navy Commander Adm. Vladimir Masorin of a massive rebuilding of the Russian fleet. Masorin, who also promised the return of a “permanent naval presence” in the Mediterranean Sea, said last month Russia was rebuilding an industrial base to build six new aircraft carriers over the next 20 years.
Russia can certainly afford it, so long as energy prices remain close to their current high levels. Dmitri Medvedev, who combines the jobs of being chairman of the Gazprom energy giant and also first deputy prime minister, told Germany’s Stern magazine last week that Gazprom “could become the world's most valuable company.”
"Gazprom has the largest natural gas reserves in the world. When I joined the board of directors (in 2000), the concern was worth about $8 billion, but today it is more than $250 billion,” Medvedev said.
At current U.S. prices, a fleet of six carriers, along with their aircraft and the training costs of pilots, would cost in the region of $150 billion, about the current level of Russia’s national infrastructure fund. But Russia is spending a great deal more than that.
Putin’s announcement of the new early warning and anti-missile facility that he opened at Lekhtusi, 30 miles north of St. Petersburg, was said to be "the first step in the implementation of a major early warning program up to the year 2015." And being based that far north it was not intended to stop missiles from Iran or China or the south, but to guard against missiles coming over the North Pole, which is to say against a potential threat from the United States. Not that Russia is leaving the south unguarded; a similar advanced radar installation is under construction at Armavir in southern Russia.
Then there was the announcement this month that the new S-400 Triomf missile defense system, designed to defeat Stealth bombers, has gone onto combat alert in the Moscow region. And in June the Kremlin announced the first successful undersea launch of the new Bulava missile, designed to defeat anti-missile defenses, and to equip the next-generation Borei 955 nuclear submarines.
It all sounds very expensive, and very formidable, the first ominous fruits of the $200 billion 10-year rearmament program Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced two years ago.
The reality is rather less impressive. Indeed, senior Russian defense officials are warning publicly that the rearmament program faces collapse, as wages and other costs soar. The cost of the new T-909 tanks has risen by 25 percent in just three months, and the Defense Ministry has stopped announcing the actual production of tanks, missiles and warplanes.
"The targets for increasing armaments have not been met, even when spending for the program consistently increases," Deputy Chairman Vladislav Putilin told the Military-Industrial Commission in April. And Lt. Gen. Vladimir Mikheyev, the Defense Ministry’s deputy head of armaments, is on record saying: "Uncertainty regarding financing means that we will not receive the tanks from Nizhny Tagil-based manufacturer Uralvagonzavod, nor the Su-34 aircraft that the armaments program mandates."
The Sukhoi group itself has warned that mass production of the long-planned Su-34 is out of the question this or next year. And Ivanov himself told the last meeting of the Military-Industrial Commission: "There is a deficit of over 1,500 materials needed in defense. That constitutes a threat to the state's defense capability and economic security."
The fact is that the Russian military-industrial complex may have impressive technological skills, but it lacks the skilled manpower, the resource base, the cost control and management, and the advanced engineering capabilities that the rearmament program requires.
It cannot even meet its lucrative export contracts. The former Soviet aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, is being modernized for India at the Sevmash shipbuilding yard under a $1.5 billion contract signed three years ago. It was supposed to be operational in the Indian Ocean next year, along with a wing of MiG-29K warplanes. Not a chance. Last month Sevmash admitted that the Gorshkov would not be ready until 2011 at the earliest, and Sevmash Director General Vladimir Pastukhov was fired.
The Russian bear may be coming out of hibernation, but he’s a long, long way from being back -- even with all that oil and gas money at his disposal. And the more the big holes in the rearmament plan become apparent, the more questionable become Sergei Ivanov’s hopes of succeeding Putin as Russian president next year.