The Russian bear is showing its claws again, but how sharp are they?
President Vladimir Putin has rattled the West with a wave of dramatic military announcements redolent of the Cold War. Long-range Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons are back on flying patrol around the world, prompting Nato fighters to scramble in response.
New long-range missiles have been test-fired, one streaking from one end of Russia to the other in less than half an hour, according to official accounts.
And the former Red Army is re-equipping itself, with defence spending growing 20-40% a year since Putin came to power in 2000, albeit from a low base after the ravages of the 1990s.
Should the West be worried?
“Overall, Russia’s military capability is well below 50% of what the Soviet Union had,” Peter Felstead, editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said in an interview. “The bombers resuming flights was more a prestige thing and a diplomatic signal than real military posturing.”
The US State Department in Washington dismissed the bombers’ reappearance as Russia taking “old aircraft out of mothballs”—an unflattering reference to the backbone of Moscow’s fleet, the propeller-driven Tupolev-95 which first flew in 1952.
“The West doesn’t terribly need to worry,” said Christopher Langton, a retired colonel who works as a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. “Most of the product of the Russian military-industrial complex is for the export market to bring in revenues. Little goes to the domestic market.”
In the army, most tanks are outdated models from the 1960s and 1970s, according to IISS figures. Russia’s navy has just one operational aircraft carrier after five others were decommissioned and sold to China and India in the 1990s.
And despite pledges to re-equip the military, analysts say new high-tech versions of existing weapons are still snapped up abroad before they come into service at home.
“The first buyer for the modernized MiG-29 (fighter) is Yemen and the second is Eritrea,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of Moscow’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Defence experts say that apart from Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces, which were relatively well-funded in the 1990s, most of the military needs to overcome years of neglect.
Russia has started an eight-year $189 billion (Rs7.79 trillion) programme to replace nearly half of existing military hardware by 2015, including modern Topol-M missiles, missile-carrying aircraft, motor vehicles and ships, according to official information.
But Yevgeny Bendersky, a senior analyst with the privately-funded Power and Interest News Report in Washington said the impressive-sounding defence spending masked deficiencies on other fronts, such as the quality of manpower.
It also helped to hide Russia’s domestic social problems.
“What we are seeing now is a pattern very similar to the Soviet Union,” he added. “Outwardly Russia seems very strong, especially in the field of energy, but inwardly it’s not—the gap is widening between the rich and the poor, the situation in the countryside is terrible”.
Political and defence analysts say Putin’s bold statements may be aimed at impressing voters before presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming months.
“Putin is grand standing,” agreed Giles Merritt, director of the Brussels think tank Security and Defence Agenda.
“A lot of their stances are directed at making people sit up and say Russia is really a great power without having any specific aims in mind.”
The Kremlin says its military build-up should not worry anyone. Russia’s 2007/8 defence budget is half that of Britain’s and less than one-tenth of the US’, it says.
“The change in Russian military spending is insignificant compared with the military build-up of the United States or Great Britain,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“We had quite a long period of underfunding of military programmes...and of course it has to be compensated. Everything is gradually returning to normal.”
Felstead of Jane’s Defence Weekly said the West’s biggest headache might not be Russia’s armed forces but some of their overseas customers such as Iran, Venezuela or Syria.
“Russia still has certain key technologies which we don’t have in the West,” he said. “If the latest air defence systems find their way from the former Soviet Union to places like Iran, this could have a big impact.”