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Russia flexes its military aviation muscle

August 22, 2007 14:20 IST

As aircraft deals go, the agreement signed between Russia and Indonesia, by which the latter will buy six Sukhoi fighter jets by 2010 for a total value of $350 million, is no big deal.

It is, however, Russia's largest arms contract with Indonesia to date - and it plays into a larger story that is gradually emerging, of Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempt to put his nation back on the military -- and particularly, military aviation -- map of the world.

The agreement was signed on August 21, the inaugural day of the largest even air show in post-Soviet history, held at the Zhukovsky airfield outside Moscow.

Its sponsor is Rosoboronexport, the state arms trader that signed the deal with Indonesia; it is run by Sergei Chemezov, widely tipped to take over from Putin in the presidential elections next year.

In this, experts see signs of a continuity of Putin's vision to rebuild Russia's military might - and with it, beef up its political and economic strength as well. Significantly, four days before the air show kicked off, Putin ordered strategic bombers to patrol the Atlantic and Pacific oceans - for the first time since 1992.

Various media sources, quoting President Putin and unnamed aides, say Russia is now determined to make aircraft manufacture a national priority. While aides are quoted in The Guardian, London and other newspapers, as saying Russia could shortly resume production of the Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic nuclear bombers that are involved in the renewed patrolling to beef up Russia's `strategic deterrence', Putin added that the country will besides retaining its `leadership in the production of military equipment', look to resume large scale manufacture of civilian aircraft.

Historically, Russia was second only to the United States in the production of civilian aircraft through to the end of the 1970s. Following the collapse of communism - and the consequent crippling of the economy - Russia cut back on spending for its aircraft industry.

The Guardian quotes Putin as saying he is determined to make Russia the third largest civilian producer, after the US with Boeing and the European Union with Airbus.

Russian officials have pledged to build 4,500 civilian aircraft by 2025, for which the government has promised £125bn to help boost the civilian industry.

The thrust will come from the newly formed United Aircraft Corporation, a state controlled body that is headed by Sergei Ivanov, Russia's first deputy prime minister and another of the candidates tipped to take over from Putin next year.

The air show provided a platform to strut some cutting edge equipment, including a new S-400 missile and aircraft interceptor system that analysts say is better than the US Patriot system, and a new supersonic cruise missile, the Meteorit-A.

On view, too, was the latest generation of fighter planes, including the upgraded Sukhoi jet SU-35, complete with new engines and a new radar system, and a revamped MIG, the MIG 29-OVT.

All of this, the Guardian points out, comes against the background of deteriorating relations with the west. Putin has repeatedly denounced the US missile defense plans in Europe; more recently he scrapped an agreement with NATO on conventional armed forces.

While the air show played out on Tuesday, Yuri Baluyevsky, Russia's military chief of staff, is quoted in the Guardian as warning the Czech Republic it would be making a "big mistake" if it permitted the US to use its territory.

Analysts say that while Putin is not looking for a head on clash with the US, he is hell bent on restoring his nation's strategic parity with the US, which has for the best part of two decades reined as the world's sole superpower.

"Russia wants balance. It wants a strategic balance with the US," the Guardian quotes Moscow-based defense expert Ivan Safranchuk as saying.

"Russia wants to do this as cheaply as possible. But with the Bush administration withdrawing from arms control treaties, Russia is saying it is also ready to keep the balance at a high level of cost."

Rediff News Bureau