Russia's resurgent military
Fueled by billions in oil wealth, it looks to reclaim the USSR's status as a global military power. As a newly self-confident, oil-rich Russia teams up with China in joint military exercises Friday, it is moving to reclaim the former Soviet Union's status as a global military power. A seven-year, $200-billion rearmament plan signed by President Vladimir Putin earlier this year will purchase new generations of missiles, planes, and perhaps aircraft carriers to rebuild Russia's arsenal. Already, the new military posture is on display: This summer, Russian bombers have extended their patrol ranges far into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, forcing US and NATO interceptors to scramble for the first time since the cold war's end.
"Diplomacy between Russia and the West is increasingly being overshadowed by military gestures," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign-policy expert with the independent daily Kommersant. "It's clear that the Kremlin is listening more and more to the generals and giving them more of what they want."
Economic bloc ups military teamwork
On Friday, Mr. Putin will join leaders of China and other members of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Russia's Chelyabinsk region to view the final stage of the group's most ambitious joint military maneuvers yet, to include 6,500 troops and over 100 aircraft. Also on hand will be leaders of SCO observer states and prospective members, among them India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia. At an SCO summit in Kyrgyzstan Thursday, Putin stressed that while Russia is not seeking to build a cold war-style "military bloc," he does see the SCO expanding from its original purpose as an economic association to take on a greater military role.
"Year by year, the SCO is becoming a more substantial factor in ensuring security in the region," he said. "Russia, like other SCO states, favors strengthening the multipolar international system providing equal security and development potential for all countries. Any attempts to solve global and regional problems unilaterally have no future," he added. The SCO, founded in 2001, is often referred to as a "club of dictators" due to less-than-democratic ex-Soviet members such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. The group has been holding joint war games since 2005, when it also demanded that the US vacate military bases it had acquired after 9/11 in former Soviet Central Asia, whose oil and gas reserves are garnering increased attention from the West.
"The SCO clearly wants the US to leave Central Asia; that's a basic political demand," says Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow director of the independent World Security Institute. "That's one reason why the SCO is holding military exercises, to demonstrate its capability to take responsibility for stability in Central Asia after the US leaves."
New naval base, long-range missiles
Moscow's growing military footprint – and the apprehensions of others about it – is evident in a spate of recent news events.
• Last week the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia accused Russian warplanes of invading its airspace and firing a missile, which failed to explode, at a radio station. Russian officials denied the allegation and suggested that Georgian leaders fabricated the incident. Tensions have been high between Russia and Georgia over Moscow's support for two breakaway Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are protected by Russian "peacekeeping" troops.
• Russian naval chief Admiral Vladimir Masorin announced this month that Russia may reclaim a naval base at Tartus, in Syria, from which Soviet warships used to keep tabs on US ships. "The Mediterranean is an important theater of operations for the Russian Black Sea Fleet," he said. "We must restore a permanent presence of the Russian Navy in this region."
• In July, amid worsening relations between Russia and Britain over the still unsolved poisoning death of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, two Russian Tu-95 bombers flew deep into NATO territory for the first time since the cold war's end and, according to Britain's defense ministry, briefly entered British airspace before being escorted away by British fighter planes.
Last week, in another post-Soviet first, Russian bombers "revived the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet US aircraft carriers and greet US pilots visually," ending up near the American Pacific base of Guam, Russian Air Force Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov told Russian media. He added that the pilots on both sides "exchanged grins."
• Russia has recently conducted tests of new land- and sea-based intercontinental missiles, which are expected to soon replace the country's aging Soviet-era nuclear deterrent. As a partial response to US missile defense plans, Russia will develop a missile defense "project that will include not only air defense systems but also antiballistic missile and space defense systems" to protect Moscow and other Russian centers, Russian Air Force chief Col. Gen. Alexandr Zelin told Russian media last week. Critics are skeptical that, despite major Putin-era infusions of cash, Russia's weak industrial base can deliver on the Kremlin's ambitions to restore a global military presence.
"Now our military leaders have enough money to create a kind of caricature of the Soviet armed forces, and they want to do a lot of the same old things," says Alexander Goltz, military expert with the independent online magazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "But their plans are a confused mixture of realistic goals and unworkable Soviet-style symbolism," says Mr. Goltz.
Russia Air Show: Flexing Military Might?
At the largest post-Soviet air show, Putin shows he's making headway in rebuilidng the Russian aerospace industry
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be using any opportunity he can these days to remind the world—perhaps especially the U.S.—that he is rebuilding his country's military, political, and economic might. On Aug. 17, he ordered strategic bombers to resume patrols over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for the first time in years. Thousands of Russian and Chinese troops are currently conducting joint military exercises. And on Aug. 21, Putin presided over the opening of the largest air show in post-Soviet history as combat planes roared over the Zhukovsky airfield outside Moscow. "[We must maintain] our leadership in the production of combat aircraft," Putin declared at the opening. Are these signs of a new Cold War or something more nuanced? It's as hard as ever to read the inscrutable Putin, but he seems determined to ensure his legacy as the leader who won back world respect for Russia before his second term ends next year. Whatever the Russian President's political or military agenda, rebuilding the defense and aviation industries are key goals for the Kremlin. And Russia is making some progress—as the aviation show testifies.
Civilian Aviation Lags Military Industry
A key player is Rosoboronexport, the state arms trader and sponsor of the International Aviation & Space Show. The company is run by Sergei Chemezov, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Putin. On the air show's first day, Rosoboronexport signed an agreement to sell to Indonesia six Sukhoi fighter jets, which will be delivered between 2008 and 2010. The deal, estimated at $350 million, is Russia's largest arms contract with Indonesia to date. Overall, Rosoboronexport this year has inked agreements worth $2.5 billion to export Russian-made aircraft. Most industry observers agree that Russia's civilian aviation industry is lagging behind the fighter aircraft makers. "Our military aviation is all right. The commercial aviation is slowly recovering," says Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center of Analysis of Strategies & Technologies, a defense think tank. To boost the Russian industry's ability to compete in passenger and transport jets against Boeing (BA) and Airbus, the Kremlin created United Aircraft, a state holding company combining key producers such as MiG, Sukhoi, Ilyushin, Tupolev, and Irkut. United Aircraft's ambitious goal: to produce and sell about 4,500 aircraft worth some $250 billion by 2025. For starters, Russian airlines are expected to order some $600 million in Russian-built aircraft at the Moscow air show.Other deals include a new joint venture between Boeing and Russia's titanium giant, VSPMO-Avisma. The new company, Ural Boeing Manufacturing, will produce titanium parts for the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet. VSMPO-Avisma, majority-owned by Rosoboronexport, supplies titanium products to Boeing, Airbus, Brazil's Embraer (ERJ) and other aerospace groups. Earlier this year, Russian airliner Aeroflot (AFLT.RTS) signed a major deal to buy 22 Boeing Dreamliners—another sign of Boeing's close ties to the Russian market. Altogether, more than 780 companies from Russia and abroad, including markets as far away as Zimbabwe, are taking part in the six-day International Aviation & Space Show.