Russia orders upgrade of its nuclear deterrent

DONGUZ TESTING RANGE, Russia Fri Sep 26, 2008 2:40pm EDT

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev visits nuclear submarine St. George the Victor at a military base in Krasheninnikov Bay in the Kamchatka Peninsula, September 25, 2008. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev visits nuclear submarine St. George the Victor at a military base in Krasheninnikov Bay in the Kamchatka Peninsula, September 25, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov

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DONGUZ TESTING RANGE, Russia (Reuters) - Russia said on Friday it would build a space defense system and a new fleet of nuclear submarines by 2020, beefing up its nuclear deterrent at a time of heightened tensions with Washington.

Announcing the biggest defense initiative in Russia for at least a decade, President Dmitry Medvedev said this summer's war with Georgia -- which opened up new rifts between Moscow and the West -- showed the need for Russia to have a strong military.

The plan for a stronger deterrent also comes against the backdrop of fierce Russian opposition to the United States' plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, a project the Kremlin says is a threat to its national security.

"A guaranteed nuclear deterrent system for various military and political circumstances must be provided by 2020," Medvedev said after viewing a military exercise in the southern Urals.

"Large-scale construction of new types of warships is planned, primarily of nuclear submarines armed with cruise missiles, and multi-purpose submarines. A system of air and space defense will be created," he said.

"Just recently we have had to rebuff an aggression unleashed by the Georgian regime and, as we found, a war can flare up suddenly and can be absolutely real," said Medvedev.

Medvedev was speaking at what one military commander said were Russia's largest combined arms live fire exercises in 20 years. The war games involved 40,000 soldiers, 7,000 vehicles and artillery pieces as well as jets and helicopter gunships.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an ardent foe of Washington who has aligned himself with Moscow, met Medvedev 75 km (45 miles) from the site of the exercises earlier on Friday.

Russia this month sent two bomber jets on a mission to Venezuela, a sortie Moscow said was routine but which some analysts have interpreted as saber-rattling directed at Washington.

POWER PLAY

One Western analyst said in military terms it made little sense for Russia to spend huge sums on its nuclear deterrent when its biggest deficiencies were in its conventional capability.

"I would say this is a power play against the West, just as strategic bomber flights to Venezuela are," said Lieutenant-Colonel Dr. Marcel de Haas, a Russia and security expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael.

"However, only Russia's domestic audience will be ... impressed, not the West," he said.

Russia's conflict with Georgia worsened tensions with the United States that had been building since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy and Medvedev's predecessor, came to power in 2000 and began re-asserting Russia's status as a world power.

Russia's military endured years of under-funding following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with its warships and aircraft sitting idle for long periods.

Analysts say the nuclear deterrent did not suffer the same neglect and remains effective.

The Kremlin, now sitting on a large cash pile after several years of high prices for its main exports, oil and gas, has already injected large sums into reviving the military.

Putin, who is now a powerful Russian prime minister, announced earlier this month that nearly $95 billion would be allocated to defense and security in 2009.

That is a 27 percent increase on the previous year, but still a fraction of total U.S. defense spending, which this year was more than $600 billion.

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