Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin inspected one of Russia's new stealth fighter jets on Monday and said Russia needs a stronger military to protect it against foreign attempts to stoke conflict around its borders.

Less than two weeks before a presidential election in which he hopes for a resounding win, Putin visited Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a snow-swept city in Russia's Far East where military and civilian plane maker Sukhoi is a big employer.

He prefaced his trip with a newspaper article intended to burnish his image as a strong leader, saying Russia would spend 23 trillion rubles ($768 billion) over a decade to modernize the former Cold War superpower's armed forces.

"New regional and local wars are being sparked before our very eyes," Putin wrote in the article published on the front page of Russia's official gazette, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"There are attempts to provoke such conflicts in the immediate vicinity of the borders of Russia and our allies," he wrote ahead of the March 4 election which he is expected to win.

Putin gave no details of specific threats but said Russia needed to develop weapons that were better than those of any potential enemy and called for making Russia's armed forces more professional and versatile.

Russia's once-mighty armed forces underwent a decade of spending cuts after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, although Putin tried during his 2000-08 presidency to slow the decline. The military now has about 1 million personnel.

With his calls to increase Russia's might and spend state cash to improve military technology, Putin can count on strong support from the defence industry.

Dressed in a black coat on a visit that mixed elements of governance and campaigning, Putin looked down into the cockpit of a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter. He also examined a T-50, which Russia designed to rival the U.S. F-22 stealth fighter.

"With him it is getting better and better. It is not getting worse. I am afraid that if someone else comes to power, only God knows what may happen," said Sergei, a factory worker who was assembling a jet.

But with other plants in the city of 260,000 struggling, many did not share Sergei's enthusiasm for Putin.

"I am not going to vote for any of these power usurpers," said Andrei, a 28-year-old technician, referring to all five presidential candidates including Putin.

Putin, 59, has presented himself as the guarantor of stability and accused foreign powers of helping the organizers of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule. But many are concerned with rampant corruption and political stagnation.

Andrei, sitting at a café with his girlfriend, said he had been trying to set up his own business but had failed because of kickbacks demanded by local authorities.

Putin acknowledged the role of corruption in the defence industry and urged the private sector to help in boosting competition. He cited oil companies Surgutneftegas and TNK, which he said helped pay for the renovation of a submarine base at the Pacific port of Kamchatka in 2002.

"We need to ... attract enterprises from the civilian sector, private companies to compete for military tenders," Putin told a government meeting on the arms industry.

"In order to rearm the army and the navy we need to involve not only the defence industry but the potential of the whole Russian economy," he said.

Russia has criticized the NATO mission in Libya, saying it overstepped the mandate it was given by the United Nations Security Council and helped rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi last year, and it has stood behind Syrian President Bashar Assad, one of Moscow's few allies in the Middle East.

In the latest of his articles published on the key policies if his presidential campaign, Putin made no specific mention of uprisings in Libya, where NATO air assaults helped topple Gadhafi, or Syria, whose president has been under Western-Arab pressure to step down.


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