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“I look at this as Putin attempting to demonstrate that Russia is still a major world political-military player,” Mr. Polmar said.

“I think it is important to point out, it is both political and military. A Russian base in Cuba and a couple of destroyers that visit there regularly are no military threat to us of any kind. So it is primarily political.”

He said the Russian navy “is in very poor shape because of finances.”

“It has very few ships that are operational. Very few submarines that are operational. Everything is behind schedule, all of their new construction. The country was for several years essentially bankrupt after the fall of the Soviet Union. The shipyards fell into disrepair. All of the services fell into disrepair,” Mr. Polmar added.

Mr. Russell said the problem is worsened by corruption. Money meant for the government is siphoned off by organized crime.

“The country’s balance sheet looks good right now because it has lots of oil and natural gas, but the profit from this bonanza is being looted by the organized crime-apparatchik kleptocracy that is ruling the country,” he said.

“Much of the money is just being stolen and not being invested in the people and the state. If it didn’t have nuclear weapons, why would anyone take Russia seriously today, except in a negative sense?”

‘Ordinary workhorses’

Earlier this year, RIA Novosti ran a frank assessment of Russia’s beleaguered navy, saying the fleet is made up of “ordinary workhorses.”

“The Russian Navy is not obsessed with grand-scale projects or the ‘de facto global standard’ strike groups of heavy ocean-going ships deployed around nuclear aircraft carriers,” a Russian naval analyst wrote.

“Even at its height, the Soviet Union failed to live up to that standard with reasons ranging from weaknesses in industry and ship-repair facilities to the varying rants of top military and defense-industry leadership. The Russian Navy orders simple and ordinary workhorses for the sea. When a large number of ships was decommissioned in the 1990s [the nonstrategic portion], it left a big gap in the country’s naval forces.”

Today, Mr. Putin sees a U.S. Navy that dominates the world’s key regions — the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean — while his sea power increasingly is built around territorial defense, plus the nuclear capability of submarines to strike the United States.

“Very few Russian ships are out of coastal waters at any given time,” Mr. Polmar said.

Mr. Putin, in his third term as president, has made confronting Washington a priority. He opposed NATO intervention in Libya and now is blunting Western efforts to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

Russia and China have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for tougher measures against Mr. Assad. Mr. Putin also continued to send attack helicopters to Damascus. It drew a rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had made a “reset” in relations with Moscow a chief priority.

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