Russian Bear Roars Why Is Moscow Risking a New Cold War?

Strategic bombers off the American coast, battleships in the Mediterranean -- the Russian military is displaying its might once again with Moscow pumping billions into new weapons. But where does the Kremlin see its enemies today, and why is it risking another nuclear arms race with Washington?


At eleven o'clock at night, when the moon is reflected in the slow-moving waters of the Volga River, when the steppes are exhaling the heat of the day, and when the last bars are closing in Yekaterinburg and Pokrovsk -- old provincial cities on the river's left bank that are now called Marx and Engels --, Gennady Stekachov is on his way into world politics. And everyone can hear it.

Russian military planes fly over Red Square and passing a Kremlin tower during a rehearsal for the May 9 victory parade in Moscow.

Russian military planes fly over Red Square and passing a Kremlin tower during a rehearsal for the May 9 victory parade in Moscow.

The shutters shake in the crooked old wooden houses German settlers built 250 years ago, and the windowpanes rattle in the prefabricated high-rise apartment buildings from Soviet days.

The cause of the commotion is Stekachov guiding his 150-ton, long-range bomber down a runway outside the city and, together with his crew of seven other men, taking off into the night sky.

He follows his usual route north, up to the Arctic Sea and the Barents Sea, and then turns sharply to the West to circle the polar ice cap. The first NATO fighters, now on high alert, have appeared by the time Stekachov reaches the Norwegian coast. From there on the jets -- French Mirages, British Tornados or Norwegian F-16s -- escort the Tupolev Tu-95 past the Shetland and Faeroe Islands to a point off the American coast.

The men spend 16 hours in the air, with nothing but ocean below and not even a toilet on board. But despite the lack of comfort, the trip offers plenty of hair-raising excitement, such as when one of the NATO aircraft crosses Stekachov's path just below his aircraft, which can carry up to 16 cruise missiles to the most remote corners of the earth.

Stekachov finally sees a purpose to his profession, now that Russia is sending its strategic air force on patrol flights out into the world once again, following a 15-year hiatus brought on by a lack of funding. "In four months," he says, "my crew has flown seven missions to just off the American coast." Stekachov, a lieutenant colonel from a small, little-known city on the Volga, has had to wait 15 years for the experience.

If any Germans are familiar with Engels, a city of 200,000 inhabitants, 350 kilometers (217 miles) from the former Stalingrad, they know it as the capital of the former German Volga Republic, which Soviet dictator Josef Stalin dissolved in August 1941, banishing its residents to Siberia and Kazakhstan. And space flight aficionados might even know it as the city where Yury Gagarin, the world's first cosmonaut, landed with his parachute on April 12, 1961.

Is Russia Restoring its Former Might?

Is Russia Restoring its Former Might?

But Engels is more of a known entity for Russians. Moscow built its first school for military pilots there in 1930. Today, the city's airport is home to the 22nd Heavy Bomber Division of the 37th Air Army -- a unit that, in case of a nuclear conflict, would carry Russian nuclear bombs to targets in enemy territory. Thirty-seven large bombers are currently stationed at Engels for just this purpose. They include 18 Tu-95 four-engine propeller aircraft, known as "Bears" in NATO jargon, with a range of 15,000 kilometers (9,317 miles), and 15 Tu-160 jets, which Russians consider the world's most formidable flying fortresses, flying at top speeds of more than 2,000 kilometers per hour (1,242 mph) and with space for 40 tons of bombs on board -- known in the West as "Blackjacks."

Only a decade ago, the Engels air base was practically empty. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had ordered most of Russia's bombers moved elsewhere. But today a banner at the entrance to the air base encourages local residents to reignite the "glory of Russian weapons."

A hint of the Cold War has been revived between the East and West, since Russia began sending out its pilots on missions once again, since its aircraft, in a throwback to Soviet days, have reappeared on radar screens in the Western hemisphere, and since they have, on occasion, come within touching distance of the British border and flown over the American aircraft carrier "Nimitz" and a Japanese island (albeit unpopulated), to which Tokyo responded by dispatching two dozen fighter jets to drive out the intruders. "Our job is to show that since we are capable of flying this far, we are also capable of carrying weapons to our destination," says Major General Pavel Androssov, the commander of all strategic aircraft.

Back in Business

The Russian military, still one of the largest in the world, with its 1.1 million soldiers, is back -- and not just in the air. The navy is conducting exercises in the Atlantic and Mediterranean once again, and in February the "Yury Dolgoruki" was the first in a new generation of Russian submarines to leave its dock. The new craft is a giant among submarines, capable of firing 16 missiles carrying nuclear warheads and remaining submerged for up to 100 days. A major maneuver of the country's Arctic Sea and Pacific fleet will be conducted in one of the world's oceans this summer. The commander of the exercise is President Dmitry Medvedev.

In 2007, Russia's military budget climbed to 822 billion rubles, or $35.4 billion (€22.8 billion). And because oil is flushing more and more cash into government coffers, the Kremlin and its generals have set off a veritable fireworks of announcements recently. Moscow expects to own 50 strategic bombers by 2015, build as many "Topol-M" intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), as well as eight "Bora" (Gale) class nuclear submarines. It has also developed a new ballistic missile, the "Bulava" (Cudgel), and the T-95 -- the "tank of the 21st century" -- will be placed into service next year.

"The Russian military machine is back in business," writes Britain's Daily Telegraph, describing Russia's "dramatic increase in military potential." According to Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples, the head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), "Russia is trying to reestablish a degree of military power that it believes is commensurate with its renewed economic strength and political confidence." And for US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the modernization of the Russian military "underscores the importance of our sustaining a valid nuclear deterrent," in the future, as he told officers in the US Air Force in early June.

This is exactly the kind of language Moscow's military leaders like to hear. It makes them feel that they are being taken seriously once again. "People don't like the weak. They don't listen to them and they insult them. But if we have parity once again, they will be taking a different tone with us," says former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

But what does it mean when the military chief of staff in Moscow, responding to US plans to install a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, is back to talking about the "preventive use of nuclear weapons?" When he threatens Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet republics, with "military and other measures" should they join NATO? Or when Moscow, as happened in December, suspends its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and calls into question other agreements, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)?

Is this a show of strength for domestic political purposes, designed to bolster patriotic pride among Russians? Is Russia trying to return to the world stage with the tools of the 1970s? Or does the Kremlin truly feel threatened by the West once again?

Moscow's Akademiya Restaurant is on a small side street behind Tver Boulevard, next to a newly built synagogue. It is one of the chic establishments frequented by Russia's new elite. Stanislav Belkovsky, a thick-set man with a three-day growth, glasses and a receding forehead, who likes to have his breakfast here, is the head of the private Moscow Institute for National Strategy.

The notion that Russia is restoring its military might to a level close to that of the Soviet era has "nothing to do with reality," says Belkovsky. "It's part of the propaganda with which the Kremlin seeks to pull the wool over the public's eyes." According to an almost 70-page dossier titled "The Crisis and Decline of the Russian Army" and published by his institute, the military leadership should in fact resign en masse. The report suggests that the military's figures and announcements are sheer fantasy.


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