MOSCOW – The diplomatic tone between Russia and the US may have sweetened since Barack Obama took office, but Russian leaders are adopting a tougher line than ever when addressing their domestic audience.
Speaking to a room of Russian Army brass on Tuesday, President Dmitry Medvedev pledged massive hikes in military spending and stepped-up procurement of nuclear missiles, tanks, fighter planes, and a new generation of deep-water warships, including aircraft carriers.
Despite a galloping economic crisis, "significant funds have been earmarked for the development and purchase," of these weapons, Mr. Medvedev said.
He did not specify the amounts to be spent on new arms, but said the increases will not take effect until 2011. The daily newspaper Kommersant reported Wednesday that Russia might actually cut its military expenditures for next year amid a hurricane of budgetary woes.
A "qualitative" upsurge in Russian military development is necessary because conflict looks more likely than ever in the present world, Medvedev argued. "Threats remain that can bring about local crises and international terrorism; NATO is not halting its efforts to widen its military infrastructure near the borders of our country," he added.
In a separate statement, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov called for a robust military response to what he described as Washington's attempts to drive Russia into a strategic corner. "US aspirations have been aimed at getting access to raw materials, energy, and other resources," of the former USSR, he said. "Active support was given to attempts to push Russia out of its traditional sphere of interests."
Russia has been discussing military renewal for several years (click here for a Monitor story) as Soviet-era hardware deteriorates, the old-fashioned conscript army grows increasingly dysfunctional, and fresh military challenges emerge. Last summer's flash war against the neighboring ex-Soviet republic of Georgia was won handily by Russia's Caucasus-based 58th Army, but postwar analyses highlighted disastrous shortcomings that cost the Russian forces dearly (in-depth coverage on the fallout posted here).
Russia has also been moving to bolster its regional alliance system and develop military cooperation with neighboring China (see Monitor's coverage here), which also happens to be one of the biggest clients for Russian arms sales.
Some experts suggest that the sudden burst of strident talk coming out of Moscow, including declarations of rearmament and proposals to base Russian nuclear-capable bombers in Latin America (for more on that, click here), is mostly political atmospherics aimed at putting Obama on the defensive when he meets with Medvedev on the sidelines of the G-20 conference in London next month to renegotiate the strategic relationship between the two countries.
But others say Russia's rearmament plans are very real, and may even be long overdue. "We are not happy at all with the Army we have," says Viktor Baranets, a military expert with the independent Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.
"It may have won the Caucasus war, but it proved itself to be an outdated Army of the Soviet type. Even though some parts still work well, such as the strategic missile command, our Army is basically good for nothing," he says.
The message delivered by Medvedev is that Russia will no longer scrimp and save at the expense of its armed forces. "This statement is mainly for domestic consumption, to reassure the Russian public that we are ready to meet all challenges," Mr. Baranets adds.