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2007 Marks a Year of Russian Muscle-Flexing

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2007 was a year in which Russia deployed new weapons, withdrew from a major European security treaty, and held a widely criticized election campaign, all while continuing to enjoy economic growth and a stronger currency. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky looks at a year of Russian muscle-flexing.

At the Moscow Air Show in August, Russia signaled an intention to revive its commercial and military aviation industries, which fell on hard times after the Soviet collapse. Just days before the exhibition, one of the planes on display, the TU-160 strategic bomber, took to the skies again on orders of President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin said he decided to renew round-the-clock strategic air combat patrols as he announced 14 bombers accompanied by support planes and refueling tankers had already taken off that day.

Russia's strategic aviation had been grounded due to economic difficulties in the 1990s.

The Kremlin engaged in a flurry of other publicized military activity - deployment of an upgraded missile defense system around Moscow; ongoing construction of three new nuclear submarines; military exercises with China; air force maneuvers over distant oceans. Other moves put foreign countries on notice - Kremlin suspension of a key European security treaty and a threat to deploy nuclear weapons near Poland. This - in response to a U.S. proposal for a missile defense system in Central Europe to guard against a possible Iranian missile attack.

But in remarks to VOA, independent Russian military analyst Alexander Khramchekhin said the rebuilding of Russia's military is more public relations than reality.

"The move," says Khramchekhin, "is partly an attempt to resolve a psychological complex, in other words, to show that Russia has become as strong as before. It is, he says, largely a propaganda campaign for domestic rather than foreign consumption."

Military imagery was, indeed, used by the ruling United Russia Party in a TV ad during the recent parliamentary campaign. The commercial featured fighter jets, President Putin in a flight suit, and elite troops with guns in hand.

The Kremlin, however, went beyond imagery to assure control of parliament in a December 2 election.

Riot police used force to disperse opposition campaign rallies and opposition leaders were jailed. The opposition was also denied access to nationwide TV, and its campaign literature was confiscated. These and other violations were noted by European election observers.

The president of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, Goran Lennmarker, pointed to President Vladimir Putin's campaign on behalf of the ruling United Russia Party.

"The merging of the state and political parties is an abuse of power and a clear violation of international commitments and standards," he said. "The other point is that the media showed a strong bias in favor of the president and the ruling United Russia Party."

The Kremlin claims credit for reviving the Russian military and economy, and President Putin says leadership continuity is needed to assure further success. Kremlin control of national media assures no one will challenge such claims. And continuity was virtually guaranteed when Mr. Putin supported Dmitri Medvedev as the next president. Mr. Medvedev returned the favor by asking Mr. Putin to become prime minister.

Given such control by the ruling elite, opposition presidential candidate and former chess champion Garry Kasparov withdrew from the race, calling the presidential election "a farce."

"It's not the end of the world; it just shows that this game is a fake not only on the day of the election with the election fraud, but at every stage of this process," he said.

In June, the Kremlin tightened its grip on Russian energy production, pressuring British Petroleum to give up its stake in Siberia's Kovykta field, one of the world's largest gas deposits. And as energy exports continue to boost Russia's economy, its people this year began saving more rubles and selling off U.S. dollars.

In more good news for the Kremlin, Russia won its bid for the 2012 Winter Olympic Games and a research submarine planted a Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole in a bid to claim vast undersea oil deposits.

Such Russian muscle-flexing this year was accompanied by a mini-sensation in August, when the Kremlin released photographs featuring … the muscles of a bare-chested President Putin on a fishing trip.

 

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