WASHINGTON — Lumbering Soviet-era bombers flying far outside Russian airspace. Harsh recriminations of U.S. expansionism. The most vigorous military modernization since the fall of communism more than 15 years ago.
With his country awash in oil-generated prosperity, President Vladimir Putin is flexing Russia’s muscles in a series of unsettling reminders of the Cold War that raise the question: Just what is the former KGB spy and — by extension, Russia — up to?
While U.S. officials and Russian experts generally don’t envision a new Cold War, many believe that Putin’s recent moves are designed to assert Russia’s new vitality, create further distance from the West and re-energize the Kremlin’s influence over the vast landscape that it controlled during the Soviet era.
Now approaching his eighth and final year as Russian president, Putin, 54, has seized on every opportunity to project a tough, virile image for himself and his once-chaotic nation, including a much-publicized, shirtless stroll through a Siberian stream that revealed his muscled physique.
The overall objective, said Eugene Rumer, a Russian expert at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C, is to "show the flag" and tell the world: "We’re big boys … we are a force in the international arena and we’ll position ourselves on our own terms."
Still, to those around during "duck-and-cover" exercises, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding rants at the United Nations, some of Putin’s actions have disturbing parallels to the Cold War, which officially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991:
_ Aerial saber-rattling: Since mid-August, Tu-95 Strategic bombers, nicknamed the "Bear," have been flying long-range missions close to NATO airspace, prompting British and Norwegian fighters to scramble into the skies to intercept and escort them away. Two Tu-95s also flew far into the Pacific, approaching U.S. airspace in Guam.
Putin ordered the patrols on Aug. 17, resuming permanent airborne security of Russia for the first time in 15 years.
_ Another arms race? Putin has approved a seven-year, $200 billion rearmament plan to revamp and modernize the military after years of decline following the collapse of the Soviet empire, including next-generation aircraft, new intercontinental missiles and a submarine base in the Pacific.
The arsenal also includes what Russia describes as the world’s most powerful non-nuclear air-delivered explosive, reputedly four times as powerful as a U.S. bomb nicknamed "the mother of all bombs." Russians call theirs "the dad of all bombs."’
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited the "uncertain paths" of Russia and China, as well as the two countries’ "sophisticated military modernization programs," in urging Congress to adopt President Bush’s $463.1 billion defense budget.
_ Tough talk. Pulling back from the pro-Washington embrace adopted by Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, Putin harshly criticized the United States this year for overstepping its borders "in every way" and said that the expansion of NATO reduces "the level of mutual trust."
Denouncing U.S. intentions to base missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe, Putin has signaled Russia’s intent to increase spying abroad and to pull out of a conventional forces treaty in Europe. The Kremlin also has threatened to deploy missiles closer to Europe unless Washington abandons the missile-defense sites.
Putin sprang another surprise this week by naming Viktor Zubkov, an obscure financial regulator, as prime minister following a shakeup of the government. The selection fueled speculation that Putin, who is barred from a third consecutive term, will run for the presidency again in 2012 after four years of a caretaker president.
The Tu-95s that Putin has permanently assigned to patrol against unspecified threats against Russia are themselves lingering reminders of the Cold War.
Propelled by four-turboprop engines on swept-back wings, the Bears first entered service in 1952 and are comparable in size, shape and tenure to America’s venerable B-52, which also dates to the mid-'50s. A Russian hydrogen bomb that produced the largest manmade explosion in history was dropped from a Tu-95.
The bombers Putin dispatched are armed with missiles but not nuclear weapons, according to Russian officials. The latest Tu-95s have been upgraded with electronic intelligence and have a range of more than 8,000 miles — more than enough to reach the United States — but military analysts generally view them as an insignificant threat to this country.
"It would not have the capability to penetrate any airspace that we would not want it to penetrate," said retired four-star Gen. John T. "Jack" Chain, who commanded the Strategic Air Command from 1986 until 1991. "When it was born, it had awesome capability, but the world has changed since then."
Bush administration officials have taken a low-key approach to the flights, saying Russia has a right to conduct the patrols in international airspace and downplaying comparisons to the Cold War. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, said in a statement to McClatchy Newspapers that the long-range missions serve "to remind us that the international security environment is complex, dynamic and uncertain."
Putin is able to finance his country’s military modernization through the oil wealth that has boosted the Russian economy by an average of 26 percent each year since 1999, reversing years of economic decline following the collapse of the Soviet state. Russia is spending about $32 billion on its military, but the expenditure is less than 3 percent of its gross domestic product and is only a fraction of the more than $400 billion spent by the United States.
Most military analysts say that the Russian military, while improving, hasn’t recovered fully from the post-Soviet decline and is still inferior to the U.S. military.
Lockheed Martin’s F-22 is superior to anything in the Russian fighter fleet and just over half of Russia's 200 bombers are "in useable condition," said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst with the Teal Group of Fairfax, Va.
But he adds: "They’ve got just enough of a strategic force to make a nuisance of themselves."