Russian might ... might not

Decline: Missile failures during what was to be a display of nuclear potency reveal how far the former superpower has fallen.

February 19, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - It was meant to be an impressive display of military might. Instead, Russia wound up looking like the former superpower that couldn't shoot straight.

A missile launched from the Karelia, a nuclear-powered submarine in the Barents Sea, veered off course yesterday and automatically self-destructed, Russian wire services reported.

It marked the third time during the exercises for Russia's nuclear forces, billed as the largest since the Soviet era, that a missile launch went awry.

On Tuesday, another nuclear-powered sub, the Novomoskovsk, was scheduled to fire two RSM-54 missiles. But the first reportedly failed to clear the launch tube properly and broke up just above the surface. The second launch was canceled as a precaution, according to the newspaper Kommersant.

By some Russian news accounts, yesterday's test was the navy's attempt to save face in the wake of Tuesday's failure.

It was all the more distressing, perhaps, because Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had a front-row seat. On Tuesday, he strolled on the deck of the nuclear submarine Arkhangelsk in the Barents Sea in a submariner's sheepskin-lined leather jacket.

Yesterday, wearing a green Strategic Missile Forces uniform, he watched his nuclear forces at the Plesetsk launch pad in northern Russia.

The problems of Russia's military are by no means limited to its strategic forces. In four years of bloodshed, Russian ground forces numbering in the tens of thousands have failed to subdue a few thousand Chechen rebels. The Russian soldiers have made an impression only for being poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly motivated.

But this week's exercises were supposed to show that, despite its troubles, Russia was still a country to be reckoned with because it could still deliver a long-range nuclear strike.

"It's certainly an embarrassment, particularly because of the fact that this was billed to be such a big event," said Thomas G. Mahnken, acting director of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "These things do go wrong even for the U.S. military. But I think it's a concrete example of how far the Russian military has fallen."

In an interview with the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Eduard Baltin, a retired Russian admiral, seemed to share that view.

"The trouble is that there are few experts left and the crews are badly trained," he said. "We failed to show a potential aggressor that Russia's nuclear forces are in full combat readiness."

The navy had told reporters in advance of the two planned missile launches. But after the test fizzled, the navy chief, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, claimed that the service had planned an electronic simulation rather than an actual test firing.

Several newspapers compared the Russian navy's refusal to acknowledge the failure of Tuesday's test to the lies that high-ranking officers told in the days after the sinking of the submarine Kursk in August 2000.

Navy officials insisted that the Kursk sank as the result of a mysterious collision, not a technical failure aboard the state-of-the-art sub. But the tragedy, which cost the lives of all 118 sailors on board, was eventually blamed on a faulty torpedo.

Mahnken said this week's missile failures support the view that, with or without a formal arms-control agreement with the United States, Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal will inevitably shrink.

"The systems are getting old and not great shape, and will be withdrawn," he said. "This is more evidence of that."

Overall, he said, the misfires - which caused no injuries - are welcome news.

"The quote-unquote problem is that the Russians are not devoting the resources to keep their strategic nuclear forces at high readiness," he said. "But, frankly, I don't consider it a problem. It's a symbol of something good."

Putin made no mention yesterday of the launch failures, and neither did Russia's television networks - all to some degree state-controlled.

Instead, Putin told television reporters that Russia would develop a new generation of nuclear weapons "capable of hitting targets continents away at hypersonic speed, high precision and the ability of wide maneuver." He also hinted that Russia might develop a missile defense system, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

Putin is seeking re-election to a second term March 14. While Putin seems all but certain of victory, nationalist parties calling for a revival of Russia's military strength made a surprisingly strong showing in December's parliamentary elections.

A decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, many Russians say they want their country to regain some of its former power and prestige. Many are uneasy with the expansion of the NATO alliance into Eastern Europe and the establishment of U.S. military outposts in former Soviet states, including Georgia.

Not all of this week's exercises failed, of course. Yesterday in Plesetsk, Putin watched the successful launch into orbit of a military satellite, as well as the firing of an RS-18 ballistic missile from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan.

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