Moscow won’t have seen a traffic jam like it for a generation: intercontinental missiles on mammoth 16-wheel trucks, tanks and rocket systems threading through the capital to Friday’s Red Square parade.
Victory Day is an annual affair, but this will be the first time since the 1991 Soviet collapse that the big guns — even weapons of mass destruction like the Topol-M nuclear missile — join the parade.
For Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev, set to be inaugurated tomorrow, and for President Vladimir Putin, the World War II anniversary bash has a simple message: Russia’s military is back.
Yet some analysts believe the show of strength will be as hollow as the Topol missile tubes, which for obvious reasons won’t contain their deadly warheads.
“It’s just a PR exercise,” Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts said. “The armed forces are being used for propaganda purposes by the Kremlin.”
No one denies that there have been serious advances since the 1990s, when the remnants of the once mighty Soviet armed forces were defeated by a few thousand lightly armed Chechen independence fighters.
Putin has crushed the Chechens, resumed long-range nuclear bomber patrols, and used the obedient state media to inculcate Soviet-style patriotism.
But for all that — and for all the fanfare in Red Square this week — dire and systemic problems are eating away at Russia’s pretensions to great power status, analysts say.
As the respected Federation of American Scientists wrote in a blunt assessment last week: “Russia’s conventional military capability is so limited that it is virtually irrelevant.”
Even with a 16 percent increase in military spending this year, Russia’s defense budget amounts to 956 billion rubles (US$40 billion) — less than a tenth of the US$515 billion budget under consideration in the US Congress.
The human face of that vast spending gap is the grimy conscript teenager who carries most of the burden in Russia’s million-man military and who can appear a world away from volunteer US troops and their Robocop-like gear.
Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Vasily Smirnov, said that every third newly recruited conscript is physically unfit to serve, while one in two is barely educated.
Creating a professional army might seem to be the obvious answer, but Russia has tried and failed repeatedly since the end of the Soviet Union — mostly, analysts say, because of resistance from a bloated and corrupt top brass.
Technically, too, the military is struggling to keep up to 21st century standards.
“The technical gap with the United States is widening. We are pressing to have as many missiles and warheads and so on, when the problem is elsewhere. The revolution in the military sector over recent years has been in information technology, reconnaissance,” Golts said. “We still see things from an outmoded viewpoint.”
Despite resuming high-profile strategic bomber flights, many air force pilots sorely lack flight time, analysts say.
An embarrassing crash of a Russian Su-27 fighter on Lithuanian territory in 2005 was “mostly due to a lack of practice,” a recent report by Russia’s National Strategy Institute said.
As for the country’s navy, the Federation of American Scientists said in another report last week that Russian nuclear-powered submarines carried out just three patrols last year, compared with 54 by US submarines.