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Russian military's roar does not have real bite: analysts

MOSCOW -- Dramatic encounters last weekend between Russian and U.S. warplanes over a U.S. aircraft carrier seemed to underline President Vladimir Putin's boast that Russia is again a world player — but analysts are less sure.

The Cold War-style incident Saturday involved Russian TU-95 Bear bombers, U.S. F-18 fighters, and no less than 24 Japanese F-15s, roaring through the skies in the area of the USS Nimitz in the western Pacific near Japan.

A Russian air force official told the Interfax news agency Wednesday that the Russian planes were simply on "routine training" and again denied Tokyo's claim that Japanese airspace was violated, saying "no international norms ... were broken."

However, former air force chief Pyotr Deinekin reflected the pride Russians are taking in such long range air patrols, renewed last year following a long break due to post-Soviet funding shortages.

"An aircraft carrier is harder to find in the open ocean than a needle in the haystack. The crews had to go directly to their target, in this case the Nimitz, to photograph it," he crowed, Interfax reported.

Almost daily, Russian state television provides glowing reports on the prowess of the military.

The armed forces were at the heart of Soviet ideology and the economy but almost collapsed in the 1990s, when heavily out-gunned Chechen rebels devastated the army, aircraft were grounded and ships rotted. Today, warplanes routinely probe the airspace of northern European NATO countries.

Earlier this month a Russian naval fleet carried out large-scale maneuvers in the Mediterranean for the first time since the 1991 Soviet break up. Strategic bombers later fired tactical missiles over the Bay of Biscay off the Spanish and French coasts. Throw in Putin's aggressive statements on re-targeting Russian nuclear missiles in response to Western military encroachment and the world might seem set for Cold War, Round Two. Just this Wednesday, Putin told the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, that Moscow might in theory aim "our offensive missile systems at Ukraine" if the ex-Soviet republic joins NATO and hosts U.S. anti-missile defenses.

But analysts say Moscow's bark is worse than its bite.

Putin warns of a new arms race and promises a military renaissance, but Russia's military budget is less than one twentieth that in the United States and most of its weaponry is relatively outdated.

"Russia is trying to flex its muscles and trying to be a player on the world stage," Bob Ayers, at the Chatham House think-tank in London, told AFP. But "in a military sense they are not a major player now ... It's just PR."

Russian military analyst Alexander Goltz said that both Moscow and Western political circles were responsible for hyping routine military exercises by Russia's forces.

In the West "certain intellectual circles are searching for confirmation of the Russian leadership's militaristic tendencies," he said. "They exaggerate any military activity."

Meanwhile, Russia's propaganda machine also presents "the most run of the mill exercises as some kind of Russian military comeback."

Maria Lipman, analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Putin wants to exorcise Russia's "past humiliations," but that the country's main strategic goal is to build an economic powerhouse based on energy exports.

"Russia, under today's leadership at any rate, is not seeking a Cold War confrontation, a real arms race," Lipman said.

"The rhetoric may get very unpleasant and tough, even aggressive, but I don't think this overshadows the main trend that Russia is interested in commercial profit, in economic success."

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