Moscow Times columnist Alexander Golts sees Vladimir Putin's decision to begin bomber flights against the West as his formal declaration of a new cold war:
Militarism is not only when the military makes all the key government decisions. It is also when civilian politicians use military solutions as the universal tool to solve all of their problems.
This can lead to some interesting results. One example was when President Vladimir Putin announced last week the start of a new Cold War. While standing on an artillery range during what was called anti-terrorist military training maneuvers by members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Putin declared that Russian strategic bombers would resume regular, long-range patrols -- or "tours of duty" as Putin said in televised remarks Friday -- for the first time since 1992.
I can imagine how professional military leaders winced when they heard this statement. After all, resuming regular patrols means that planes are flying with nuclear weapons on board, ready to be fired at the order of the commander in chief. The last time Moscow's strategic bombers flew regular sorties was during one of the more heated stages in U.S.-Soviet relations -- from January 1985 to April 1987.
But I really don't think that the 14 strategic bombers, which carried cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, completed their sorties Friday over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans with any intention of launching an attack. If that had been the case, the U.S. reaction would have been much harsher than the caustic comments we heard from U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack: "If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that's their decision."
Last week's announcement regarding regular, long-range bomber missions is just the latest in a series of threatening stances by the Kremlin that take us back to the era of the 1980s. Remember Putin's statement in February 2004 during military exercises, where he claimed that Russia had developed a "miracle missile" that could overcome any anti-missile defense system. And of course there was the explosive Munich speech, in which, among other things, Putin revealed his belief that the heightened U.S.-Soviet confrontation of the 1980s was one of the most stable periods in international relations. This was a time when Moscow and Washington focused on mutual containment by significantly strengthening their military capabilities.
Putin has become quite nervous of late about a fictitious danger that he seems to have concocted himself: the West's intention to interfere in Russia's transfer of power in 2008, when Putin's second term comes to an end. The president is trying to protect his country from outside enemy influences by playing the Cold War card. This tactic enables him to rally the people and convince them that any criticism of his Kremlin is an insidious ploy by foreign powers to prevent Russia from "getting up off its knees" to become a global superpower again.
This whole anti-West campaign is a farce, of course, but the question is whether this farce will grow in intensity and become a very real and dangerous drama. This could happen if Washington begins taking at face value the Kremlin's repeated declarations of its growing military potential. Although the Kremlin's bold statements against the West may have been designed for primarily domestic political goals, it could, nevertheless, lead us back to a serious confrontation.
The Peace Mission 2007 maneuvers, a joint military exercise of SCO member countries held last week in the Chelyabinsk region, show once again that conventional military forces are ill-equipped to fight an effective battle against terrorism. The exercise involved about 6,000 troops from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and about 1,000 pieces of military hardware, from fighter jets and bombers to heavy artillery. In these simulated training maneuvers, a group of mock terrorists seized a population center in SCO member nation "A." An armed gang of fighters from country "N" then broke through to them. Under these conditions, the SCO states consulted and decided upon a coordinated anti-terrorist operation. The combined military forces of the six SCO member nations then killed the terrorists and set the hostages free.
On one hand, these maneuvers demonstrated a new level of military cooperation between Russia, China and the Central Asian member nations of the SCO. It would seem that, on the surface, much was achieved: A mechanism for joint action and decision making has been established; China has proven its ability to project its armies and military hardware -- including air power -- into Russia; and military leaders were able to coordinate complex military operations among six different nations.
What is most important, however, is that the Peace Mission 2007 training exercises -- despite all of its claims -- have no application whatsoever in the fight against terrorism. It is obvious that the army is the wrong tool for battling terrorists. The bombing of the Moscow-St. Petersburg train shows that a conventional army cannot prevent a terrorist act. Law enforcement agencies must be the ones to combat terrorists, using their agents to infiltrate the ranks of terrorist organizations. Fighter jets and bombers, like the ones paraded with so much fanfare in Peace Mission 2007, are of very little use in this struggle.
In addition to terrorists, the joint exercises of Peace Mission 2007 identified another target -- separatists and insurgents. It is no coincidence that some analysts saw a connection between the Peace Mission 2007 maneuvers and events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in May 2005, when the regime of President Islam Karimov used bullets from government troops to disperse a protest in the town's main square, resulting in scores of civilian deaths. Karimov called the protest a terrorist uprising, and Moscow supported that version of events.
As the SCO members attempt to develop conventional military solutions to solve terrorist threats, the question is who will they label as terrorists in each concrete situation. It is clearly in Russia and China's best interests to ensure stability in Central Asia. But, according to Moscow and Beijing's interpretation, stability means one thing -- keeping the current ruling regimes in power. What's more, these leaders do not understand that the most serious threat to stability in the region is the crushing poverty among their citizens. At the same time, Moscow and Beijing have made it quite clear that they are not willing to work with the West to resolve the problems in the region.
The joint training exercises last week clearly demonstrated Moscow and Beijing's readiness to use military measures to keep the weak and corrupt Central Asian regimes in power. And the Kremlin has once again shown that military force is an unsuitable tool to achieve political goals. Putin's announcement on Friday that regular, long-range patrols of strategic bombers will be re-established is just the latest example of this fundamentally flawed policy.