Putin flexes Russian military muscle in naval exercise

MOSCOW Thu Mar 28, 2013 4:56pm EDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during closing remarks at the fifth BRICS Summit in Durban, March 27, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during closing remarks at the fifth BRICS Summit in Durban, March 27, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Rogan Ward

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin ordered large-scale military exercises in the Black Sea on Thursday, projecting Russian power towards Europe and the Middle East in a move that may vex neighbors.

Officials suggested the surprise drill would test reaction speed and combat readiness, but Putin's order also seemed a signal to the West of Russia's presence in the region.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Putin triggered the maneuvers as he flew back overnight from South Africa after a summit of the BRICS emerging economies.

Peskov said 36 warships and an unspecified number of planes would take part, but not how long exercises would last.

Putin has stressed the importance of a strong and agile military since returning to the presidency last May. In 13 years in power, he has often cited external threats when talking of the need for reliable armed forces and Russian political unity.

Late last month, Putin ordered military leaders to make urgent improvements to the armed forces in the next few years, saying Russia must thwart Western attempts to tip the balance of power. He said maneuvers must be held with less advance warning, to keep soldiers on their toes.

Putin, 60, has used his role as commander-in-chief to cast himself as a strong leader for whom national security is foremost. State media emphasized he ordered the exercises from a plane in the dead of night.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet, whose main base is in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, was instrumental in a war with ex-Soviet neighbor Georgia in 2008 over the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In addition to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia shares the Black Sea with Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.

But Russian foreign affairs analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said the exercises were "more likely part of a wider attempt to reconfirm that Russia's navy and military forces in the south are still able to play a political and geopolitical role."

"It is flexing muscles and may have more to do with what is happening in the Mediterranean, around Syria, than in the Black Sea," said Lukyanov, editor of journal Russia in Global Affairs.


Russia's modest naval maintenance and supply facility in Syria is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union, and the Defense Ministry recently announced plans to deploy a naval unit in the Mediterranean on a permanent basis.

Russia has clashed diplomatically with the West throughout a two-year conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people in Syria, using its U.N. Security Council veto to block Western efforts to push President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts said unannounced exercises are good for Russia's military, but the location could raise questions among Russia's neighbors.

"We will be watching these exercises very closely as Georgia has its own experience with Russia," Tedo Japaridze, head of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee, told Reuters. He said all Black Sea nations have the right to hold exercises.

The Kremlin portrays Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a bellicose leader, and Russia said last week annual U.S.-Georgian training exercises that began this month in Georgia, far from the Black Sea coast, put peace at risk.

Meanwhile, disputes with Ukraine over Moscow's continued lease of the Black Sea navy base have been a thorn in relations with its former Soviet neighbor.

Peskov said the number of servicemen participating was short of the threshold requiring Russia to notify other nations of its plans, but Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted a spokesman for Ukraine's foreign minister, who was in Moscow on Thursday, as saying Ukraine had been informed in advance.

A NATO official said the Western alliance was not given notice and that "exercises are part of what the military do. NATO also conducts regular military exercises, which are not directed at anyone". But he said NATO would like to see greater openness from Russia, including on military exercises.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jason Webb)

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Comments (24)
MrBlue wrote:
Is Mr. Putin having a late mid-life crisis? He seems overly focused on the military and the belief that someone is attacking Russia. He needs to worry about terrorism and a huge country to his south called China. The United States is not an enemy of Russia. Maybe the problem is the old guard mentality. Any leader above the age of 60 continues to live with memories of the Cold War. The world is changing, we need our older leaders to change or go away!

Mar 28, 2013 11:45am EDT  --  Report as abuse
bobber1956 wrote:

You are very wrong. Every threat to our way of life is being backed by Russia and China one way or the other. Case in point there are two nations threatening us with nuclear attack-BOTH have the support of Russia and China. And since obama has not fulfilled his promise to “do more after the election” Russia is too smart to consider us a friend. All China sees when it looks at us is dollar signs. Before the world can change people have to change and that is NOT going to happen. Because you are too young and stupid to learn from the past you WILL repeat it. And then I guess that is why guys like me BLED for you to be free…so you have the right to be stupid and wrong.

Mar 28, 2013 12:46pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
xyz2055 wrote:
At the end of the day, Russia, Europe, China and the U.S. governments are concerned about their economies. Not attacking each other. The major powers are all connected economically. There is absolutely zero chance that China would attack the U.S. (for example). It would cripple their own economy. It’s a couple of 3rd world ideologic and dictator countries that wouldn’t last 48 hours in a conflict with any of the world powers that are out of touch with reality and causing the perception of instability. The days of boots on the ground and occupying another country end with Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the neocons in Washington are probably hoping the boy king idiot in North Korea does something really stupid so they can field test all their new toys. The industrial-military complex is a dying breed.

Mar 28, 2013 1:08pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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