Sunday, August 19, 2007

LONDON — In a hangar at an airfield 24 miles southeast of Moscow, technicians yesterday were checking over the latest additions to the burgeoning military arsenal that a resurgent Russia hopes can restore its status as a major world power.

The MiG-35 and MiG-29 fighters that Russia plans to showcase this week at the Moscow international air show are just a small portion of an almost $200 billion plan to return the Russian military to the heights of its Cold War might.

President Vladimir Putin caused consternation on Friday by announcing the resumption of regular, long-range nuclear bomber patrols, but there is more to come. Russia is planning to double combat-aircraft production by 2025, with more nuclear missiles, aircraft carriers and tanks at the top of its shopping list.

The message to the West is clear: The days of dismissing Russia as a spent force are over. Bolstered by the cash from sales of oil and gas and President Putin’s steely determination to re-establish the country on the world stage, the Russian military machine is back in business.

Various theories have been offered for the dramatic military expansion, not least the need to appeal to nationalists in the run-up to forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. The real reason, however, appears to be that Russia has taken offense at what it regards as the West’s insulting indifference to its very existence.

Intelligence sources say Washington and London have been taken aback by just how seriously Russia has viewed the perceived slight and concede that in concentrating so heavily on Iraq and al Qaeda, they took their eye off the ball.

“They were slow to see that these people are still players,” said a former White House staffer, who served both President Reagan and the first President Bush. “My great fear is that I wake up one day soon to discover that we lost the Cold War, or rather that, like everything else, we won the war and then lost the peace.”

A source close to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who cut her teeth in government as a Kremlinologist in the 1980s, said that Middle East issues had diverted her attention from a more rigorous engagement with Moscow.

“She wants to spend more time on Russia, but that hasn’t always been possible. She said to me that she regrets the fact that she has not done enough on what is, after all, her major area of expertise.”

Mr. Putin has not been slow to take advantage of the U.S. and British problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. The carefully staged pictures of the president stripped to the waist and striking various manly poses on vacation in Siberia last week are not the only Russian muscle-flexing that has been going on in recent months.

While Russia’s submariners have managed to upset even the mild-mannered Norwegians and Canadians by planting a flag under the Arctic ice, its long-range Tu-95 Bear bombers have rattled America’s cage by buzzing the U.S. naval base on the island of Guam in the western Pacific.

The Georgians are furious after a Russian missile landed on the outskirts of a village near Tbilisi and a series of war games in Russia’s southern Ural Mountains featuring about 6,500 troops from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan sparked Western concern over the emergence of a new Warsaw Pact.

The latest developments have exacerbated an already tense situation. Russia has responded angrily to U.S. plans to station an anti-missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland by threatening to site its own missiles in Kaliningrad to counter the threat. Earlier this summer, Mr. Putin raised the ante by threatening to target U.S. strategic nuclear sites in Europe.

Eight years ago, when Mr. Putin first came to power, the Russian military was in meltdown. The Russian army was crippled by low morale and systemic bullying of conscripts, the navy was rusting away and the air force was limping along at half its Cold War strength.

But no longer. Russian defense spending rose by 22 percent and 27 percent in the past two years, respectively, and could be up as much as 30 percent this year. In February, Sergei Ivanov, then defense secretary and now one of the front-runners to replace Mr. Putin next year, announced an almost $200 billion program of expenditures.

According to Jane’s Sentinel Country Risk Assessments, the Russian shopping list includes two new submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles, the Bulava and the Sineva — both with a 5,000-mile range and capable of carrying 10 nuclear warheads — and a new anti-aircraft missile, the S-400, which the Russian Defense Ministry claims is effective against incoming missiles. Production of the new SS-27 Topol-M missile, the land-based equivalent of the Bulava, has also begun.

Russia also plans to spend heavily on the new TU-160 strategic bomber, which can launch cruise missiles, the SU-34 “Fullback” fighter-bomber, capable of all-weather attacks on heavily defended targets, and a new fifth-generation fighter, the Sukhoi T-50, which is expected to come into service in 2008 as Russia’s main lightweight front-line fighter.

The expanded Russian fleet will include six new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — a dramatic increase from only one such carrier — and eight ballistic-missile submarines.

Alex Pravda, a Russia specialist at London’s Chatham House foreign-policy think tank, said the new aggressive approach was typical Putin.

“He believes in fighting for your place in the sun, and he is on record as saying that nobody appreciates weakness,” he said. “They are not looking for the imperial reach of the Soviet era. What they want is an international presence.”

c Tim Shipman in Washington and Nick Holdsworth in Moscow contributed to this article.

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