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Russian President Observes Major Military Exercises - 2004-02-17

Russian President Vladimir Putin is observing major military exercises that are to include the test-firing of ballistic missiles. Russian officials say the exercises are aimed at testing Russia's military readiness, but some analysts suggest they are a public relations move before the March presidential election.

Russian television was full of images of President Putin wearing a heavy naval cap and coat, riding aboard one of the world's largest nuclear submarines on the Barents Sea. With Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov at his side, President Putin was shown inspecting the submarine, strategizing with the commanders and dining with the crew.

During the course of the exercises, President Putin is also to observe the test-firing of several ballistic missiles.

President Putin has said the large-scale military maneuvers are important, as they allow the world to understand "Russia's military might as an element of strategic security."

But some analysts have suggested the exercises are really aimed at boosting President Putin's popularity as a leader who is actively working to restore Russia's military might and global prestige.

Many Russians are still smarting at what they see as the loss of their country's super-power status following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

An independent military analyst based in Moscow, Pavel Felgenhauer, said that during a presidential election year like this one, such exercises take on even greater public importance. "In 1996, president and incumbent Boris Yeltsin also took part in the exercises. This time, President Putin is taking an even bigger role. He goes on a submarine, which does not make any military sense whatsoever. A commander-in-chief should not be on a submarine during a nuclear exchange. But, well, maybe it is good for the cameras," he said.

Mr. Felgenhauer's concerns were borne out by later reports indicating problems with the test firing of the ballistic missiles. Russia's Itar-Tass and Interfax news agencies quote an unidentified source in the Northern Fleet as saying a satellite blocked the launching signals for two of the missiles due to be launched from another submarine.

There was no Russian television footage of the reported glitch, which could prove embarrassing for President Putin, if confirmed.

President Putin's political challengers have accused him of using his official appearances to secure votes, in what they say is a serious violation of Russia's election law.

Last week, Russia's top election official, Alexander Veshnyakov, said his agency would look into complaints that state television channels were giving too much coverage to President Putin just weeks before the March 14 election, which Mr. Putin is expected to win easily.

Under Russian law, all presidential candidates are to be granted equal access to television and other media. Candidates are also required to pay for airtime they receive in addition to the limited free slots allocated to them.