Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For the past three days, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the observing war games in the Far North that were meant to highlight the prowess of the country's military.
Yesterday, Putin -- in his capacity as commander in chief of the Russian armed forces -- stood on the bridge of the Arkhangelsk submarine, scanning the choppy waters of the Barents Sea, ready to witness the launch of two intercontinental ballistic missiles from another nearby submarine.
It was a picture-perfect scene, except for one thing. The cameras rolled, Putin waited, and waited. But nothing happened.
After 25 minutes without a launch, the Russian leader disappeared below deck. Russian news agencies began to speak of a technical malfunction. Soon, more unconfirmed details began to emerge on independent Russian-language news sites.
One version -- again unconfirmed -- said the missile launches were blocked for an unknown reason by a satellite signal. Another version said one of the missiles had misfired, forcing the cancellation of both launches.
After a long silence, Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov told a briefing the missile tests had actually gone according to plan. They were meant to be "virtual" launches, he explained.
If that convinced anyone, today's report that another intercontinental ballistic missile self-destructed as it veered off course shortly after launch from the Barents Sea came as undeniable confirmation of trouble.
This time, Putin was not present to witness the mishap. But the impact is expected to be severe.
The military exercise was meant to demonstrate the readiness of Russia's ballistic missile forces to the world. The effect appears to have been the opposite.
Russians vividly remember the sinking of the Kursk submarine in August 2000, which was also on a training exercise in the Barents Sea. This week's maneuvers were designed in part to exorcise bitter memories of that tragedy.
Again, the result served to highlight the poor state of the Russian navy rather than to demonstrate its renaissance, as Pavel Baev, an expert on the Russian navy and a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, explains to RFE/RL.
"The exercise, at least the naval part of it, was definitely designed to be a kind of closure on the whole Kursk affair, to make the point that this page is closed, that [Russia] is now in a new period, which would confirm Putin's statement from last autumn, that the military reform is over and that [Russia] is now in the stage of a normal buildup of military forces," Baev said.
Putin has not spoken publicly about the mishaps so far. But experts such as Baev say they are not surprised at the outcome. While some new investment has gone into the armed forces in recent years, the navy remains woefully underfunded and is essentially the same as in the year 2000.
To a large extent, many experts say the degradation of what was once a well-oiled operation is not the fault of the navy command. The navy is being asked to accomplish too many tasks, with too few resources -- from establishing new coastal patrols around Russia's vast perimeter, to increasing its regional presence in the Caspian Sea, to maintaining a battle-ready, strategic component.
Sophisticated ships and the nuclear-weapons systems they carry require sustained, major investment. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the navy has been starved of funds. Even when Russia's overall defense budget was boosted, beginning in 2001, the navy failed to receive an increase in its budget allocation. The result is evident today, as Baev notes.
"The exercise, at least the naval part of it, was definitely designed to be a kind of closure on the whole Kursk affair."
"You can starve your army for a long time, and it still can fight. But as far as naval systems are concerned, try to do the same and they just fall apart. They are not very resilient to 'starvation.' And then, if you invest a little extra money here and there, you can probably clean the ships, you can probably buy some diesel fuel, so you can take them out to sea, but the risks that something could go wrong are just really beyond any rational calculation," Baev said.
Regardless of who is to blame for the state of the Russian navy today, the reaction of its top brass to misfortune -- public denial -- is all too familiar. But here, says Baev, the military has less to worry about than it did in 2000.
"I don't think there is anything else they can really do. Face-saving is incredibly important for the military. And if any lessons, in fact, were drawn from the whole Kursk affair, it is about controlling information better, it is about what sort of spin to put on events. And, in fact, they are hardly under any pressure to do anything, because the whole flow of information in the country is now so much more controlled," Baev said.
Russia's state-controlled television channels today focused on the successful launch of a military satellite from the Plesetsk cosmodrome and repeated shots of Putin in navy uniform lunching with cadets.