Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On Winning Friends And Influencing People

Russia rattles its depleted sabre in the Atlantic

By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow

The Kremlin has flexed its military might off the European coastline as Russian warships and nuclear bombers test fired missiles close to the Iberian peninsula during the first major military manouevres in the Atlantic since the Cold War.

The RAF and the Norwegian Air Force were forced to scramble fighter jets to shadow Russian long-range bombers headed for the Bay of Biscay where vessels from the Northern and Black Sea fleets have begun three days of exercises.

The manouevres are the latest indication of Soviet premier President Vladimir Putin's intent to project Russia's growing military prowess to the international community and to pander to growing nationalist sentiment at home.

The Russian Air Force said that two Tu160 bombers, known in the West as Blackjacks, would conduct tactical missile launches off the Spanish and Portugese coastlines. Both countries, Russia said, had been informed in advance.

Earlier, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, took part in a live fire exercise that a navy spokesman said was 100 per cent successful.

Although Russia gave warning of the exercises to Nato countries last year, the operation is likely to cause an element of disquiet in the West - albeit more for political than military reasons.

As East-West relations have soured, Mr Putin responded last year by ordering a resumption of long-range bomber patrols in international airspace for the first time since the Soviet era.

He also threatened to retrain part of Russia's considerable nuclear arsenal on European targets if a proposed US missile defence shield, to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic by 2012, is not scrapped.

Yet for all the posturing, Russia still carries a small stick militarily - big enough to impress ordinary Russians at a time when Mr Putin is plotting to retain power behind the scenes after elections this March but too puny to frighten the West just yet.

While the president has sharply increased defence spending and commissioned a new generation of nuclear missiles, Russia's defence budget is a tenth of the United States' and is also smaller than Britain.

The Atlantic exercises - described by a Russian navy source as "the biggest exercise of its kind in the area since Soviet times" - have also shown that Russia's conventional military hardware remain in a sorry state.

For unexplained reasons, a number of ships meant to participate stayed at home and those that did sail are in poor condition. The Moskva is 30 years old, while the Admiral Kuznetzov, Russia's rickety aircraft carrier, spends much of its time in dry docks undergoing repairs.

In a token gesture of East-West co-operation, the French navy has agreed to send an anti-submarine frigate to join the exercises. The Russian flotilla had earlier docked in Toulon.
Given Toulon's status of being a major French naval installation, I'm sure the Soviet Russian high command arranged this visit for purely altruistic reasons - a cultural exchange, so to speak.
While Russia's military prowess may still be dubious, its growing status as an energy superpower is not. Russia and Serbia yesterday agreed a pipeline deal that will boost Moscow's energy control over Europe.

Last week a similar deal was agreed with Bulgaria.

Via The Telegraph

The Bush administration's Russian expert was too busy plotting the demise of Israel to comment.

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