Hollow Tipped Threat; Russia Plays at Being a Great Power. Lately It Has Been Rattling Its Saber-With More Swagger Than Actual Bite

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Byline: Owen Matthews (With Anna Nemtsova in Moscow and John Barry in Washington)

Stolid, ramrod-stiff Sergei Ivanov is generally not one to inspire rapturous applause. Yet that's just what Russia's former Defense minister did last month when he appeared before Parliament to announce a $189 billion program to rebuild Russian military might. There would be "revolutionary" new intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and aircraft carriers, an early-warning radar system and a mysterious "fifth generation" fighter plane. Was it any coincidence that, days later, the commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, threatened that some of those new missiles could be "retargeted" at Poland and the Czech Republic? That would be the payback if they agree to host an antiballistic-missile system that the United States aims to deploy in Europe.

If there's a whiff of cold war in the geopolitical air these days, it clearly has something to do with Moscow's cherished ambition to restore Russia's standing as a great power. And that, in turn, requires a world-class military--or at least the semblance of it. After all, the United States has been encroaching on Russia's turf for a decade, expanding NATO to include former Soviet satellites and, now, unveiling plans for an ABM defense on its borders. Never mind U.S. assurances that the system is designed to thwart rogue attacks from the likes of Iran or North Korea. Wary Russians see it as a first step toward neutralizing their strategic forces--or, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it recently, to "launch a first strike." "The truth," says Gen. Leonid Ivashov, former deputy chief of the General Staff, "is that the cold war never ended. Russia will always stay America's strategic enemy."

And yet, for all the belligerent rhetoric, there's a big difference between now and the cold war. Then, U.S. intelligence agencies consistently overestimated the Soviet threat. Today Washington wouldn't make that mistake. When Vladimir Putin blasted America for its "unrestrained" militarism during a recent visit to Munich, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates shrugged it off. Like the Europeans, he seemed more worried by Russia's massive arms sales--a record $6.7 billion a year, with orders from Iran and Syria--and its willingness to use energy as a political weapon. Beyond that, he recognized what should be obvious to Putin and his fellow nationalists. Russia might speak loudly, but it carries a pretty small stick.

Consider the numbers. Yes, $189 billion is a lot of money. Rising oil revenues have hiked Moscow's defense budget for 2007 to $31.3 billion, up from $8.2 billion in 2001. Still, that's less than a third of what the Kremlin spent during the Soviet era. More to the point, the Russian Army is nearly two decades older--and, like an aging man, that much less fit. The reality is that the once vaunted Red Army is in a sorry, if not abject, state.

The problem is not hardware, which can be fixed with cash. To the contrary, Russia has regained its edge in high-tech weaponry with its deadly Komet antitank missile, the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter and a new generation of short- to medium-range missiles. No, Russia's Achilles' heel is software--from poor and abused young conscripts drafted, often forcibly, for compulsory military service, to a deeply corrupt officer corps.

Just last month Russian Air Force commander Col.-Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov stunned the Kremlin establishment with a blunt speech. Of the 11,000 young men drafted into the Air Force in 2006, it concluded, more than 30 percent were "mentally unstable." An additional 10 percent suffered from drug or alcohol problems, while a further 15 percent were deemed ill or malnourished. A quarter of Mikhailov's soldiers never knew their fathers, 3 percent never knew their mothers and 3 percent were orphans. "Many draftees cannot read or write properly," says Ivashov, acknowledging the problems cited by Mikhailov. …