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Putin backs ‘unprecedented’ boost for Russian army

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Monday Russia had launched “unprecedented” steps to boost the army as he played up his strongman credentials ahead of March 4 presidential polls he is likely to win.

“We have approved and are carrying out unprecedented programmes to develop the armed forces and modernise Russia’s military defence complex,” Putin wrote in state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta as he bids for a third Kremlin term.

In the next decade, Russia will acquire more than 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles, eight nuclear-armed submarines and around 20 non-nuclear submarines, more than 600 warplanes and 28 S-400 missile defence systems, he said.

“In total we are allocating around 23 trillion rubles ($773 billion) in the next decade for these aims,” Putin said in his sixth campaign article listing his political goals.

The newspaper article came out on the same day as Putin visited the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, which has a defence plant making Sukhoi fighter jets, on a visit that is not explicitly part of his election campaign.

Russia a year ago said that 19 trillion rubles ($639 billion) had been allocated to a military development plan running through to 2020 and the defence ministry gave many of the same hardware acquisition figures.

While Putin as prime minister for the last four years has not headed the armed forces, his latest article implicitly suggests he will be the one to see the plan through, without mentioning the elections.

“We must not tempt anyone with our weakness,” he said, drawing historic parallels with World War II and citing the then Soviet forces’ leader Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

“Therefore we will never in any circumstances give away our potential of strategic deterrence and will strengthen it.”

Russia must implement strong countermeasures to respond to NATO’s planned deployment of a missile shield in Europe, he said, continuing a debate that has simmered for nearly a decade.

“The time demands decisive steps to strengthen a single system of air and space defence of our country. We are being pushed towards these actions by the policy of the United States and NATO on the question of deploying a missile shield,” Putin wrote.

He said Russia should not try to create a “costly” rival shield but that its strategic nuclear forces and air and space defence forces should aim to “overcome any system of missile defence.”

“In this question there cannot be too much patriotism,” Putin said.

“Russia’s military and technical response to a global American missile shield and its segment in Europe will be effective and asymmetrical.”

He admitted deep problems with the military industrial complex, however, saying that while the armed forces should back domestic plants, it was “unacceptable” for them to buy obsolete technology.

“In the next decade we must fully make up for our lagging behind,” he said.

Military affairs analyst Alexander Golts said Putin had shown strong backing for reform of the Russian army, a plan that has provoked a backlash within the armed forces against Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Serdyukov has argued the reforms are essential to eradicate Soviet-era military structures but more conservative elements fear they will undermine the army’s status as a key pillar of society.

“What is most important about the article is that he is endorsing the army reforms despite all the criticism they have recently been facing, and backing the defence minister,” Golts said.

Putin also promised to revive the prestige of the armed forces and boost their professional contingent to 70 percent of one million members, while improving living conditions and salaries for officers.

But Alexander Konovalov, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic Assessment, was sceptical about Putin’s idea that the sector would become a driving force for the economy as a whole.

“The money will be allocated and siphoned off, but without reform of the military industrial complex and its ‘perestroika’ on market principles, it will simply not survive,” Konovalov told AFP.