Soldiering on after Putin

Tough-talking president leaves Russians feeling strong despite a weak military.

tomb of the unknown soldier moscow

Russians see their country as stronger on the world stage despite a diminished military force

Russia’s next president could be welcomed into power with a full-scale Soviet-style military parade in Moscow’s Red Square in May.

Dmitry Medvedev will almost certainly be on the podium as the tanks roll by, but the display of Russian strength will be very much a testament to the sense of a resurgent Russia created by his predecessor Vladimir Putin.

During eight years in power, the outgoing president’s tough talking, much of it in opposition to US activities, has restored the feeling among ordinary Russians that their country is a powerful world player.

Around the corner from Red Square, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where an eternal flame marks victims of the second world war, three soldiers from the Moscow military university told Al Jazeera that Putin had made Russia more important.

“America fears Russia. It is necessary for some countries to be afraid, but Russia doesn’t have to be afraid,” Andrey Zmeev said.

“Russia is stronger now, the military is stronger because of Putin.”

Reduced arsenal

The Soviet-era practice of regular long-range strategic bomber patrols over the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans was resumed last August.

That move came in the midst of the ongoing dispute between Moscow and Washington over US plans to build a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet states that Russia sees as being in its sphere of influence.

There is a lot of very aggressive rhetoric, but it covers the fact that Russia is not prepared to anything very much

Putin’s objections to the proposal prompted George Bush, the US president, to state: “The Cold war is over. It ended.”

Russia spent about 821bn rubles ($33.6bn), about 15 per cent of total government expenditure, on defence in 2007, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

However, Dr Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, said that the military remained weak despite increased spending during the Putin era.

“There is a lot of very aggressive rhetoric, but it covers the fact that Russia is not prepared to anything very much,” he said.

Many of the tanks being wheeled out in front of the tomb of Vladimir Lenin, could date from the days before the founder of the Soviet Union’s dream collapsed.

“Russia’s military is basically the Soviet military but worse,” Felgenhauer said.

“The more we move away from the Soviet Union, the more the legacy dissolves. The equipment is older, less modern and it often breaks down.”
Earlier this month, the biggest naval task force to be deployed in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 completed a series of manouevres said to be aimed at re-asserting influence in the area. 

“We’ll do all we can to build up our presence where Russia has strategic interests,” Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the Russian navy commander, said at the time.


However, while the operations were under way, Medvedev acknowledged the deficiencies in the Russian navy saying that it was a work “in progress”.


Putin’s powerful oratory has left some
feeling invulnerable [GALLO/GETTY] 

He told reporters in Murmansk that the navy needed to be revived to become a great “maritime and military maritime power”.

Putting together the carrier group to go to the Mediterranean was a stretch and left the navy with little to show in the Barents Sea.

The Russian navy now has only one active-duty aircraft carrier – the US has 12 – and its fleet of nuclear submarines is shrinking as elderly vessels wear out.

Putin has also been digging at the United Nations Security Council taking on the US and many European nations with its support of Serbia and refusal to recognise the independence of the breakaway province of Kosovo.

He has also been at odds with Washington over Iran’s nuclear programme, continuing to supply fuel for the nuclear power plant at Bushehr despite backing two rounds of sanctions against Tehran.

“None of Russia’s foreign policy is designed to combat American foreign policy,” Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t think anyone in international relations should be straining to be liked.” 

But although Lavrov says he is not interested in being popular, Putin’s tough talking rhetoric during his two terms in power seems to have found favour on the streets of the capital.

“Russia has become stronger among the world’s countries because many people now respect us, other countries fear Russia,” Yuriy Mihailovich, an elderly Russian, said as he looked out over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier waiting for the changing of the guard.

Source: Al Jazeera