Gremlins in Kremlin's arms surge

A conventional and nuclear buildup will end up hurting Russia's economy.

Russia's president is spitting missiles. This week, Dmitry Medvedev said he would make it a priority to upgrade the country's nuclear arsenal. He also wants a "large-scale rearmament" of the Army and Navy beginning in 2011. The Kremlin may be calculating that a stepped-up military is in Moscow's interest. It's not.

First, a caveat. Mr. Medvedev's tough talk on Tuesday could be nothing more than a mild-mannered lawyer trying to appear tough to suspicious generals (who were his immediate audience) and to newcomer Barack Obama, whom Medvedev will meet for the first time in early April.

Indeed, the Russian president gave few details in his speech, and the White House played down the promised buildup – which Moscow says is necessary to thwart terrorism, regional conflicts, NATO encroachment, and US petroleum aspirations in former Soviet republics. The speech is "largely for domestic consumption," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Maybe so, maybe so. But the West has a record of misreading Russian intentions: It underestimated former President Vladimir Putin – still hugely influential as prime minister – and his authoritarian streak at home and abroad.

The West be would be wise at least to consider Medvedev's comments at face value. But wiser still, would be for Russia to do so. Follow-through on rearmament, nuclear and otherwise, would work against Russia's economic and strategic interests.

Has Moscow learned nothing from the cold war? The Soviet Union couldn't match the US military buildup without hurting its own economy and public standing.

In today's economy, Russia simply doesn't have the rubles to rumble. The value of the ruble has fallen by a third since September, and Moscow is blowing through foreign currency reserves to prop it up. Industrial production is falling, and unemployment is at 8 percent and likely to grow.

Wealth from fossil fuels allowed Russia to nearly quadruple military spending over the last decade, but the gusher days are over for now, given low oil prices.

Even when oil prices rise, investment in arms is nonproductive in the long run. Russia would do better economically to commit to rule of law and end corruption in order to encourage investors.

Strategically, a buildup is overkill. Moscow may think its military-flexing will put it in a better bargaining position with Washington for expected arms control talks – but the US has already expressed a strong interest in negotiations. This speech, and other belligerent language and moves, is not the way to hit "the reset button" on US-Russian relations (as Vice President Biden put it) or turn "a new page," as Medvedev himself has said.

Meanwhile, NATO has little appetite to take in Russian neighbors Ukraine and Georgia at this time. And the US is showing flexibility with another major irritant for Moscow – an anti-Iranian missile shield in Eastern Europe.

If Moscow wants regional leverage, its neighbors are already dependent on Russian oil and gas. And none of those countries missed the message of Moscow's invasion of Georgia last summer.

The danger here is Russia believing its own rhetoric.

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