Putin Resorting to Cold War Threats; Russian President Vladimir Putin Increases the KGB Influence in His Government and Simulates a Nuclear Attack on the United States in His Re-Election Campaign

Insight on the News, March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

Putin Resorting to Cold War Threats; Russian President Vladimir Putin Increases the KGB Influence in His Government and Simulates a Nuclear Attack on the United States in His Re-Election Campaign


Byline: J. Michael Waller, INSIGHT

It was the ultimate campaign stunt: The president, clad in a navy uniform and white gloves, at sea on a sunny morning, standing on the deck of a giant titanium-hulled ballistic-missile submarine. He looked on smartly as the military began a weeklong exercise to unleash its triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers in the biggest nuclear doomsday drill since the coldest days of the Cold War.

The president's administration officially billed it as an "antiterrorism" exercise. But as land-based missiles arched their way a third of the way around the planet to the warhead target range in the Pacific, and as the bombers followed their dreaded Arctic route to fire cruise missiles over the top of the earth, the reality of the massive exercise was clear: The threat of Cold War nuclear extermination is as real as ever.

An American president well could have been run out of office for personally commanding and celebrating such political theater. The commander in chief in this case, however, was Russian President Vladimir Putin. The date was Feb. 17, less than a month before the March 14 elections that everyone expected him to win. Bezopastnost-2004, as the strategic command and staff exercise was called, was a mock nuclear attack on the United States, the largest since Communist Party boss Leonid Brezhnev ruled from the Kremlin in 1982.

Weeks later, Putin further consolidated his already strong control of the country. According to Jacques Amalric of the leftist French daily Liberation, Putin has placed former KGB officers in nearly 60 percent of all presidential administration posts. In early March he fired his prime minister and named to replace him a relatively anonymous technocrat with no political base but with a murky KGB background. Mikhail Fradkov has an incomplete official resume that Russian critics say indicates an early KGB career. At the time of his appointment, he was head of the tax police, Russia's equivalent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The Russian tax police, however, has a notorious past. Under Soviet rule, it was the dissident-hunting KGB Fifth Chief Directorate.

The White House expressed no concern with either development. Few American media commentators seemed to notice. The Kremlin had wanted the world to see Putin atop the conning tower of the Arkhangelsk nuclear submarine. Pravda loved the carefully orchestrated action, almost lovingly reporting on how Putin personally inspected the nuclear-reactor control room and exhorted sailors in the mess to eat pancakes in observance of Shrove Tuesday.

The Typhoon-class vessel, with the hatches of its 20 vertical missile tubes running the deck in pairs, was cruising on the surface of the Barents Sea off Russia's northwestern coast, waiting for an SS-N-23 strategic nuclear missile to burst through the ocean surface from another sub, the Novomoskovsk, which was lurking in the deep nearby. The missile's dummy warhead, according to the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), was set to strike the Kura target range on the Kamchatka Peninsula, across the Eurasian landmass, 120 degrees around the world.

There was Putin, in front of the TV cameras, waiting for the geyser of the missile from below. But there was nothing. Word came up that the missile had stuck in the tube. The Novomoskovsk, an older Delta-IV hull, fired a second missile. Again, nothing. The test was a flop a big embarrassment for the Northern Fleet, coincidentally not far from the August 2000 Kursk disaster when a submarine was lost along with its crew of 118 men. The Russian navy was humiliated by its failure to fire the missiles, but if Putin was, nobody could see. Russia's state-controlled TV networks made sure that the dapper tough guy Putin was seen in command and that nobody knew the launches had failed.

For good measure, another Delta-IV sub, the Karelia, launched a missile the next day. …

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