Putin says before poll Russia needs stronger army

MOSCOW Mon Feb 20, 2012 5:37am EST

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Monday Russia needed a stronger military to protect it from foreign attempts to stoke conflicts around its borders.

In a newspaper article intended to burnish his image as a strong leader before a presidential election, Putin said Russia would spend 23 trillion roubles ($768.46 billion) over a decade to modernize the former superpower's armed forces.

"New regional and local wars are being sparked before our very eyes," Putin wrote in the article published on the front page of Russia's official gazette, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, two weeks before the March 4 election in which he is a candidate.

"There are attempts to provoke such conflicts in the immediate vicinity of the borders of Russia and our allies," he wrote.

Putin gave no details of specific threats but said Russia needed to develop weapons that were better than those of any potential enemy and called for making Russia's armed forces more professional and versatile.

Russia's once-mighty armed forces underwent a decade of spending cuts after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, although Putin tried during his 2000-08 presidency to slow the decline. The military now has about 1 million personnel.

Putin, a former KGB officer, is presenting himself as a guarantor of stability and strong leader in his campaign for the presidential election, which he is widely expected to win.

He has also accused foreign governments of helping the organizers of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule and has criticized the United States, helping stoke anti-Americanism on the eve of the election.

ARAB SPRING

Putin, 59, made no specific mention of uprisings in Libya, where NATO air assaults helped topple leader Muammar Gaddafi, or Syria, whose president has been under Western-Arab pressure to step down.

But, in the latest in a series of newspaper articles setting out his policies before the election, wrote that recent events showed the diminished stature of international law.

Russia has criticized the NATO mission in Libya, saying it stepped beyond the mandate it was given by the United Nations Security Council, and has stood behind Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, one of Moscow's few allies in the Middle East.

Putin said Russia, which has vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria together with China, must rely on a powerful military to make sure its position is understood by world powers.

"Under these conditions Russia cannot depend solely on diplomatic or economic methods of resolving conflict," he wrote.

"Before us stands the mission of developing our military potential in the framework of a strategy of containment and remaining sufficiently armed."

He added that this was necessary "for Russia to feel safe and for its arguments to be received by its partners in various international formats."

Russia, which inherited the bulk of the under-equipped and bloated Soviet military, has tried to knock its fighting forces into shape. A five-day war in 2008 with Georgia, which it easily won, laid bare many of the military's deficiencies. ($1 = 29.9300 Russian roubles)

(Writing by Thomas Grove, Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Timothy Heritage)

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