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Russia: Analysis from Washington - New Plane For Unpaid Army

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 14 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow is introducing a new generation of advanced military aircraft even though the Russian government still has not paid the back wages of many officers and draftees.

On Monday, Russian first deputy defense minister Andrei Kokoshin said the Russian army of the future would be armed with advanced new combat aircraft. He added that the military had made particular progress in the development of control systems and avionics.

Then on Wednesday, a senior Russian air force officer amplified Kokoshin's remarks. He told the Interfax news agency that next week Moscow would unveil a new world-class warplane.

Suggesting that this new plane would "without a doubt" surprise many people, the officer -- whose name was not given -- said that it represented "a kind of answer to NATO's eastward expansion."

This public relations build-up for next week's third Moscow International Air Show raises three disturbing questions about Russian military policy.

First, is Moscow really as cash-strapped as the Russian government has repeatedly claimed? Russian officials from President Boris Yeltsin on down have regularly plead poverty to justify their inability to pay military personnel on a regular basis.

While Moscow recently has sought to reduce these wage arrears, it still owes many officers and men a great deal of money. And they may be less understanding of a government that is so publicly introducing a very expensive new aircraft.

Second, is Moscow planning to use this new generation of aircraft to increase its sales of military equipment abroad? Over the past three years, Moscow has significantly increased such sales around the world.

Just this month, for example, Indonesia announced plans to buy several Russian Sukhoi-30 jet fighters. And the new Russian plane being touted this week could lead to even more sales.

Such sales could have some unfortunate consequences both beyond Russia's borders and within them. Abroad, such sales of advanced weaponry could destabilize any number of situations by setting off regional arms races.

And at home, the more profitable Russian military industry becomes, the less willing the Russian government is likely to be to pursue defense conversion.

Given continuing declines in other sectors of the Russian economy, these profits from the sale of advanced military equipment abroad could mean that Russian military industry will occupy an ever larger share of the country's economic and hence political life.

And third, this announcement of a new plane raises the further question: just how pacific are Russia's intentions?

By suggesting that the new plane represents an answer to NATO's decision to include three former Warsaw Pact countries as members, Moscow is implying that it will seek to build up its own forces to be in a position to block any further growth of the Western alliance.

For the immediate future, the Russian government probably is not going to be able or even willing to project that kind of power. But the threat implied by this announcement will have an immediate impact on the debates taking place in each NATO country about enlargement.

Many opponents of any growth in the alliance have argued that NATO's move to the east will prompt Moscow to rearm, a step that would inevitably affect East-West cooperation and limit Russia's ability to make the transition to democracy and free markets.

They are certain to point to this announcement of a new Russian plane as proving their case.

But this Russian strategy, if such it is, may have the unintended consequence of actually strengthening the position of those who actively back NATO expansion.

To the extent that the new aircraft represents "a kind of answer" to the Western alliance, the Russian government has unwittingly provided support for those who argue that Moscow continues to represent a threat to the countries of Eastern Europe.

And that will only increase the stridency of demands by those countries to be included in the Western defense alliance.

At the same time, the introduction of this new weapons system now suggests that at least some in the Russian capital will always seek a military answer to any action of the West, something that could complicate East-West relations more generally.