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Russian Military Rearmament Plan Pits Politics Against Economics

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev this week announced a large-scale military rearmament program, which he says will require considerable resources despite difficulties associated with the current global economic crisis. There are political and economic realities that could be driving as well as hindering Mr. Medvedev's proposal.

Tanks and missiles paraded across Red Square last May for the first time since the Soviet collapse in 1991. But Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov recently said 90 percent of Russia's military technology is outdated. This includes most of the hardware on parade.

On March 17, President Dmitri Medvedev unveiled an ambitious rearmament plan to modernize Russia's military.

Mr. Medvedev says Russia's primary task is the enhancement of troop combat readiness; not the usual enhancement, but rather qualitative enhancement - above all through the strategic nuclear forces.

The Kremlin leader says Russian security is threatened by NATO expansion, local crises, and international terrorism. He adds the conflict against Georgia last August revealed flaws in Russia's conventional forces as well.

Independent Russian military analyst Viktor Litovkin says Russia lacks combat support systems rather than firing units, and notes that such systems consist of drones, precision weapons, reconnaissance, navigation, communication, and guidance systems, etc. He adds that Russia in this field is far behind what he calls the modern civilized world.

President Medvedev says Russia will devote considerable resources to develop and purchase new weapons, despite a tight national budget affected by the declining price of Russian oil exports.

But independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer notes that Russia may not only lack the money, but also the industrial capacity for large-scale rearmament.

Felgenhauer says Russia most likely will need to buy technologies and components from the West, as well as entire weapons systems. He notes, however, that such purchases are impossible to do if the Kremlin continues to envision a conflict with the West.

Military observers say Mr. Medvedev's rearmament program is designed in part to offset dissatisfaction in the ranks with a Kremlin plan to downsize Russia's armed forces. This could eliminate as many as 200,000 officers.

In February, more than 1,000 officers, veterans, and civilians rallied against military reforms in a protest sponsored by the Communist Party on Defender of the Motherland Day, a Russian national holiday. Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said the reform proposal threatens the future of Russia.

Zyuganov says protesters on that holiday first of all want to say no to mediocre [army] reform, which he characterizes as a betrayal of the Motherland.

Analysts say the armed forces and its supporters are a political constituency that the Kremlin cannot afford to ignore. But Pavel Felgenhauer says Russia cannot afford large-scale rearmament either and that Russian authorities have not reconciled this contradiction.

The analyst says there is no consensus in society or among the elites on what they really want to do. He says that everyone agrees in principle that rearmament is necessary, but he raises various questions: how and what; with the West, or against the West; should Russia buy in the West because its own industry cannot do it, or should the country somehow try to manage on its own?

Felgenhauer says decisions about such matters in Russia are made behind closed doors and are not always fully thought through, which he characterizes as a feature of authoritarian regimes.

President Medvedev says some military units have already been modernized and he expects large-scale army and navy rearmament to begin in 2011.