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Fearing West, Putin pledges biggest military buildup since cold war

Vladimir Putin, less than two weeks away from presidential polls, pledged $772 billion on arms over the next decade.

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This is not the first time Putin has promised to upgrade Russia's chronically underfunded and over-structured armed forces, whose shortcomings were clearly displayed during the brief 2008 summer war with neighboring Georgia. Many of the new weapons have been in the pipeline for some time, but bottlenecks in Russia's severely degraded Soviet-era military industry have led to breakdowns, lengthy delays, and complaints of substandard products.

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"Unfortunately all that Putin says about making our military industry capable of delivering all these new weapons remains little more than slogans," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "While Putin has a lot of good things to say about the course of [structural] military reform, he has simply not taken on board the need for sweeping reform of Russian military industry. Every year our military procurement program fails to meet its targets, and there is no sign this is going to change anytime soon."

Russia's armed forces have been dramatically transformed over the past five years by a sweeping restructuring that has eliminated the gargantuan Soviet "mobilization army," with its hundreds of "phantom" divisions that are meant to be filled out by reservists in times of war. Tens of thousands of top-level officers have been cashiered, the length of mandatory male military service has been reduced from three years to one, and about 100 mobile combat brigades – largely staffed by professional soldiers – have taken the place of hundreds of unwieldy World War II-era armored divisions as the core of Russia's army.

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"There's a lot of good sense in this article, including the projection that military conscripts will make up just 15 percent of the armed forces by 2020," says Mr. Golts. "For the first time he has stated that the goal is, effectively, to create a modern all-volunteer force. That is to be applauded."

But many experts warn that even if the massive rearmament program Putin is advocating is desirable and affordable for Russia, it may be simply not feasible. The Soviet-era military-industrial complex, with its vast webs of subcontractors, has shriveled and the skilled workers and engineers that once populated it have long since disappeared.

According to Viktor Baranets, a former Defense Ministry spokesman who writes a military column for the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, barely half of the more than 2,200 key Soviet-era military factories are still operating, and many of them are on the verge of bankruptcy today.

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