Prague, 17 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent the past 24 hours submerged under the Barents Sea, on board a nuclear submarine. Overhead, bombers fire cruise missiles while battleships prepare to launch intercontinental ballistic rockets.
Amid much fanfare, Russia has begun widescale military exercises that the Defense Ministry says are aimed at increasing the efficiency of Moscow's nuclear deterrent and the ability to penetrate enemy missile defenses.
The war games, which are expected to last several weeks, will include the test-launch of several ballistic missiles from submarines and ground silos at sites across Russia. TU-95 strategic bombers also will reportedly fly over Russia's Arctic regions and test-fire missiles at targets near the Caspian Sea. Although the Russian military has been tight-lipped about further details, satellite launches from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Plesetsk launch pad in northern Russia -- which Putin is due to visit later today -- are also expected.
Billed as the largest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union, the exercise takes place against a backdrop of growing political tensions with the United States and NATO, prompting some to wonder about the significance of its timing.
RFE/RL asked Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who closely monitors Russian military developments, whether the West should be alarmed. The answer, he believes, is "no."
Felgenhauer says the war games do not signify a change in Moscow's military posture. Rather, they reflect a need to test aging missiles and bombers -- something Russia has done regularly since the end of the Cold War
"There is a need to test old missiles, old strategic planes, to fire old cruise missiles, because all of this equipment has been there in service since Soviet times, and there have been no replacements, or very limited replacements in the last years," Felgenhauer said.
And if old equipment needs to be tested, Felgenhauer says, you might as well package the exercise as a major strategic undertaking. It boosts the military's standing in the eyes of the nation and gets noticed internationally.
"Beginning in the early 1990s, the Russian General Staff and Defense Ministry decided that since they have to make these tests anyway, to build strategic military exercises around them, to write a scenario and play out a military game," Felgenhauer said.
"There is a need to test old missiles, old strategic planes, to fire old cruise missiles, because all of this equipment has been there in service since Soviet times, and there have been no replacements, or very limited replacements in the last years."
British-based defense expert Duncan Lennox, editor of "Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems," agrees. Some of Russia's missiles are more than 25 years old, and regular testing is a way to prolong their shelf lives.
"They don't want to develop new missiles if they can keep old ones going for a longer period,” he says. “And that's what they're doing, which is a more economic approach."
This being an election year, the exercises are garnering more attention than usual -- but that may be what Putin intended. Just as U.S. President George W. Bush sought to boost his popularity ratings last May by donning a flight suit and landing on an aircraft carrier, so, too, may the Russian leader believe his image could benefit from a photo opportunity below decks. The symbolism of Putin visiting a submarine in the Barents Sea, where the Kursk sank in August 2000 with its entire crew on board, will not be lost on the Russian public.
But symbolic value may be all there is to it. As Felgenhauer points out, in a genuine conflict, a submarine at sea is just about the last place a commander in chief should find himself.
"For a commander in chief to go out on a submarine during a simulation of a nuclear war is totally senseless because he has to be in command. And a nuclear submarine in a simulation of a nuclear war should not communicate," Lennox said.
The craft should, in fact, remain silent and undetectable. But that would play far less well on the evening news.
What also does not play well on Russian TV these days is the ongoing war in Chechnya. The battlefield body count and regular terror attacks in Russia's cities are grim reminders that the country's military seems ill-equipped to tackle what many perceive as a far more real threat than any nuclear attack.
"The real state of the Russian military is reflected by its rather unsuccessful campaign in the northern Caucasian republic of Chechnya, although our strategic bombers can still fly -- at least some of them -- and our missiles can also fly. But Russia right now is not facing any kind of real military problems that can be resolved by strategic nuclear forces. Our problems are happening in fighting Muslim radical rebels in the Northern Caucasus, and these kinds of exercises do not really help or prepare for the enemies that Russia does really have," Lennox said.
Putin, who came to power four years ago on a promise to resolve the Chechen conflict, may be hoping voters will prefer instead to focus on what does work in the Russian military.