Luke Harding / The Guardian – 2008-09-28 21:58:50
Russia Challenges West with Nuclear Overhaul
Luke Harding / The Guardian
MOSCOW (September 27, 2008) — Russia announced an overhaul of its strategic nuclear forces and army yesterday, in the clearest sign yet that Moscow may be preparing for a possible full-scale military confrontation with the US and NATO.
Speaking after Russia carried out its biggest military exercises since the cold war, Dmitry Medvedev, the president, said Russia would build a space defence system and a fleet of nuclear submarines by 2020.
This summer’s brief war with Georgia, which led to a further rift between Moscow and the west, showed the need for Russia to have a strong military in a state of “permanent readiness”, Medvedev said.
His defence initiative is the biggest in Russia for at least a decade. It comes amid bitter opposition from Moscow to Washington’s plan to site a missile defence system in central Europe – a project the Kremlin says upsets Europe’s strategic balance. The move is also a riposte to US-backed plans for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
Moscow opposes NATO’s further expansion, arguing that it challenges its regional “privileged interests”. Moscow also accuses the US of encouraging, and even participating in, Georgia’s attack on the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia.
“Just recently we had to rebuff aggression unleashed by the Georgian regime. As we discovered, a local smouldering conflict – even occasionally a frozen one – can flare up into a genuine war,” Medvedev said, addressing Russian troops.
He said Russia needed a “guaranteed nuclear deterrent system” in place by 2020. The armed forces had to be prepared for “various political and military scenarios,” he warned.
He promised large-scale construction of warships, including nuclear submarines armed with cruise missiles, and also announced plans for a system of air and space defence. The president promised to improve living conditions for Russian soldiers, as well as better military education and training.
He was speaking after watching an military exercise in the southern Urals. Yesterday one leading analyst said the exercise – which involved 40,000 troops, 7,300 pieces of heavy equipment and nuclear-capable missiles – was designed to simulate a war with the US.
“This is very significant. Right now the present Russian leadership believes that a war with NATO is very much possible,” Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defence analyst, told the Guardian. “This is the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Russian military is actually preparing for an all-out nuclear war with America.”
He added: “I believe we [the Russians] are sending the west a serious message. The message is treat us with respect, and if you don’t go into our backyard we won’t go into yours. Russia wants to divide the world into spheres of influence. If not, we will prepare for nuclear war.”
Felgenhauer said Russia’s military was old but still effective. “Our military is backward in its development. But we still have a sizeable nuclear potential. It can kill a hell of a lot of people,” he said.
Russia’s conflict with Georgia worsened tensions with the US that had been building since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy and Medvedev’s predecessor, came to power in 2000 and began reasserting Russia’s status as a world power.
Russia’s military endured years of under-funding following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with its warships and aircraft sitting idle for long periods. Analysts say the nuclear deterrent did not suffer the same neglect.
The Kremlin, now sitting on a large cash pile after several years of high oil and gas prices, has already injected large sums into reviving the military.
Putin, now prime minister, announced earlier this month that nearly $95bn (£51.5bn) would be allocated to defence and security in 2009.
That is a 27% increase on the previous year, but still a fraction of total US defence spending, which this year was more than $600bn.
CARACAS — Russia is underpinning its planned military resurgence with diplomacy and alliances around the world. Its latest partner is another oil-rich power flush with petrodollars and bluster which likes to chastise America: Venezuela. Hugo Chávez was on hand to meet Medvedev on the sidelines of the Orenburg exercises as the two ratcheted up their challenge to US influence by forging military and economic deals and signalling a possible nuclear energy programme in Venezuela. In addition to accords on oil, gas and weapons purchases, they discussed building nuclear reactors in Venezuela, a move that would underline Washington’s lost sway over a region once considered its backyard.
A Russian naval squadron is sailing towards the Caribbean for joint military exercises with Venezuela, the first such deployment in the western hemisphere since the cold war. Moscow has recently deepened links with leftwing governments across Latin America: a gas deal with Bolivia, hurricane assistance to Cuba and a promise to upgrade Nicaragua’s military. Russia’s naval deployment is a response to the presence of the US navy in the Black Sea during the war with Georgia.
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