A correspondent in Moscow / The Australian – 2008-10-15 00:41:02
MOSCOW (October 13, 2008) — PRESIDENT Dmitry Medvedev watched a missile soar from Russia’s rain-soaked northern forests towards a target thousands of kilometres away last night, capping a weekend of launches to remind audiences at home and abroad about the country’s military might.
Prominent coverage of the tests on state-controlled television also seemed designed to boost the bookish Mr Medvedev’s credentials as commander-in-chief in the eyes of the Russian populace.
Mr Medvedev saw what officials said was the successful test-firing of a 21-year-old Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile hit its target thousands of kilometres to the east on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the President told servicemen who conducted the launch.
Mr Medvedev, dressed in a dark bomber jacket, told servicemen in a clearing near the Plesetsk launch facility: “Respected comrades … you have fulfilled your task and I congratulate you.”
The tests come amid increasingly strained ties with the US following the war with Georgia and persistent Russian opposition to US plans for a missile-defence system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellites now in NATO. Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said the exercises reflected Russia’s determination to prepare for major military conflict.
“This was a dry run for a war with the United States,” Mr Felgenhauer said. “These are the biggest strategic war games in more than 20 years. They are on a parallel with those held in the first half of the 1980s. Nothing of the sort has been seen either in Russia or the United States since then.”
Russia has been flexing its military muscle worldwide. It is sending a naval squadron to Venezuela for November exercises, a western hemisphere deployment unprecedented since the Cold War. Last year, then president Vladimir Putin ordered the resumption of long-dormant global patrols by strategic bombers.
Two Russian Tupolev-162 strategic bombers – each capable of carrying 12 cruise missiles armed with single 200-megaton nuclear warheads – carried out exercises in Venezuela last month.
Last week, Japan scrambled a pair of US-made F-15 fighters to intercept and escort Russian bombers on patrol near, but not inside, Japanese territorial waters.
Washington has shrugged off Russian moves over the past 18 months to resume strategic bomber patrols around the world and reactivate use of its navy to project power on the seas, questioning if the hardware was up to the task.
Russian officials have said newer versions of the Topol can penetrate any missile defence.
“We will strengthen our military capability, we will adopt new types of weapons, but we will continue to test the traditional ballistic missiles we have in service,” Mr Medvedev said. “Their effectiveness has stood the test of time, and that is very good. It shows that our shield is in order.”
On Saturday, Mr Medvedev watched the test of a Sineva missile launched from a submarine in the Barents Sea. Officials said it flew more than 11,500km and hit a target in the Pacific Ocean near the equator.
Last night’s land-based launch was followed by two missile launches from nuclear-powered submarines, one in the Barents Sea and one in the Sea of Okhotsk, off Russia’s eastern coast, north of Japan, Russian news agencies reported. The weekend launches are part of wide-ranging military exercises called Stability-2008.
Mr Medvedev, a former lawyer who comes across as milder than Mr Putin, faces an uphill battle in matching the tough-guy image of his predecessor and mentor, who is a KGB veteran and judo black-belt who is now Prime Minister and is widely seen as more powerful than Mr Medvedev.
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