Putin seeking a 'stronger military'


Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin inspected one of his army’s new stealth fighter jets and said the country 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, Mr Putin visited Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a snow-swept city in eastern Russia where military and civilian planemaker 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 more than €500 billion over a decade to modernise the armed forces.

"New regional and local wars are being sparked before our very eyes," Mr 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 4th election, which he is expected to win.

Mr 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 Mr Putin tried during his eight-year presidency to slow the decline. The military now has about one million personnel.

With his calls to increase Russia's might and spend state cash to improve military technology, Mr 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 Sukhoi factory worker who was assembling a fighter jet.

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

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

He 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," Mr 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.