The New York Times
September 26, 2008
MOSCOW — Russia continued its international muscle-flexing on Friday, strengthening its ties to Venezuela through a $1 billion military loan and a new oil consortium as it announced an upgrade of its own military focusing on nuclear deterrence and permanent combat readiness.
President Hugo Chávez, holding a replica Russian Tu-160 long-range bomber, and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin in Orenburg, Russia, on Friday.
After a military exercise on Friday in the southern city of Orenburg, near the border with Kazakhstan, the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, declared that by 2020 Russia would construct new types of warships, including nuclear submarines carrying cruise missiles and an unspecified air and space defense system.
The moves point to continuing tension between Russia and the West after the five-day war in Georgia. Response in Washington was muted, as officials weighed whether the moves were merely a restatement of existing initiatives or should be interpreted as one early sign of a new, if slow-motion, arms race. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with Reuters: “The balance of power in terms of nuclear deterrence is not going to be affected by those measures.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference that his Russian counterparts had in the past made it “very clear to me that their intention was to modernize their strategic forces.” The current plans, he said, are consistent with Russian policy going “as far back as a couple of years.”
But the war in Georgia has clearly reordered priorities. With Europe and the United States united in condemnation of Russia’s military actions, Russian leaders began reaching out to countries like Venezuela, which are eager to provide a counterweight to United States power. On Thursday, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, arrived on his second visit here.
On Friday, Mr. Medvedev said the conflict also proved “the acuteness” of Russia’s need to modernize its military. Defense spending will increase by 26 percent next year, bringing it to 1.3 trillion rubles ($50 billion), its highest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Just recently we have had to rebuff an aggression by the Georgian regime and, as we found, a war can flare up suddenly and can be absolutely real,” he said. “Local, smoldering conflicts, which are sometimes even called ‘frozen conflicts,’ will turn into a real military conflagration.”
The conflict in Georgia flared on the night of Aug. 7, when Georgia ordered an attack against Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia. In response, Russia sent troops flooding over its border and deep into Georgia. Russia has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second separatist enclave, as sovereign states and plans to defend their borders.
The conflict revealed serious weaknesses in Russian military readiness. Georgian air defenses shot down at least six Russian jets, pointing to poor maintenance and inadequate training. Russians took losses because they lacked air cover as they entered South Ossetia, and a Russian general, apparently operating without sufficient intelligence, was wounded when he led a column into Georgian ambush.
By 2020, Mr. Medvedev said, Russia will shore up nuclear deterrents like nuclear submarines armed with cruise missiles and a combined air-space defense system.
In the same period, he said, the Russian armed forces will be upgraded to a state of “permanent combat readiness.” He said Russia would also improve military training and research.
“We should seek superiority in the air, in carrying out precision strikes against ground and sea targets, and in the prompt redeployment of forces,” he said, according to a statement on the Kremlin’s Web site.
Aleksandr Golts, an independent Russian military analyst, said the announcement conveyed a clear message, both to Russians and foreigners: that Russia “has risen from its knees.”
“Russia wants to behave as a great power,” he said.
“I have to agree with Mr. Gates, your defense secreta
ry, who said that the existing Russian armed forces are only a shadow of the Soviet ones,” he said.
At a meeting with Mr. Chávez, Mr. Medvedev agreed to a form a Russian-Venezuelan energy consortium that would share resources to produce and sell oil and gas. Russian companies are already at work exploring oil fields in Venezuela, but the agreement will allow them to expand their reach into more areas, including fields in Ecuador and Bolivia.
Mr. Chávez described the agreement as “a colossus being born.”
More cooperative efforts are in the works: On Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said Russia would consider working with Venezuela to build nuclear power facilities. Mr. Chávez said he would like to see the two countries join forces to create a Russian-Venezuelan bank, and the two countries are planning joint large-scale naval exercises in late November.
Mr. Chávez reaffirmed his support for Russia’s military campaign in South Ossetia, saying Venezuelans were “well aware of the reasons behind the conflict — who attacked the people of South Ossetia and how.” He also passed on greetings from President Raúl Castro of Cuba, whom he recently met in Havana, and from the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.
Admiral Mullen, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played down the joint efforts. Russia and Venezuela, he said, have the right to work together “if they see fit.”
Some White House officials have privately urged a more punitive response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, but Ms. Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have urged a calm and deliberate response as being less likely to escalate tensions. That strategy has been adopted by the Bush administration.
In another assertion of its international role, Russia sent a warship, the Neustrashimy, from a port on the Baltic Sea to the coast of Somalia, in response to the capture by pirates of a Ukrainian vessel bound for Kenya on Thursday.
On board the vessel were 33 T-72 tanks, grenade launchers and ammunition, the Ukrainian defense minister, Yuriy Yekhanurov, said at a news briefing, according to Interfax. Mr. Yekhanurov said the arms were sold legally, and were headed for the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
Most likely the ship will not arrive in time to participate in any operation to retake the hijacked Ukrainian vessel. But a Russian Navy spokesman, Igor Dygalo, said Russia will occasionally patrol waters where piracy is a danger.
Iran Resolution Is Shaped
UNITED NATIONS — The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus that of Germany, agreed Friday on a draft resolution on Iran’s nuclear program.
The new resolution came after Russia earlier in the week rejected the need for a group meeting over Tehran’s program.
The sparse, two paragraph text called on Iran to comply with previous resolutions instructing it to suspend uranium enrichment, but it included no new sanctions.
The ministers said the measure signaled that they were united in pressing Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The foreign ministers did not meet officially, but a consensus emerged during sideline discussions that Iran should not be left with the impression that squabbling over Georgia meant the six were divided on the nuclear issue.
Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said he agreed to the new resolution because it reinforced the idea that despite their differences on the method to reach an agreement with Iran, “Nobody will have any doubt that the six are united in their goal.” Russia still opposed new sanctions, he said.
The five permanent members of the Council are the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that she still hoped that some officials in the Iranian government would prefer a negotiated settlement to further isolation for Iran.
Diplomats said the resolution could come to a vote in the Security Council as early as Saturday.
Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington, and Michael Schwirtz from Moscow.