Recent media hysteria about those damned Russians diverts attention from the emperor's old new clothes, laments Eric Walberg
23/8/7 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said 17 August that the Russian Air Force would resume regular, long-range patrols by nuclear- capable strategic bombers after a 15-year break following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The bombers were flying over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the North Pole, and were being escorted by NATO fighter jets, recalling Cold War-era standoffs. He suggested that the decision was a response to military threats to Russia. "Russia stopped this practice in 1992. Unfortunately not everybody followed suit. This creates a strategic risk for Russia.

"This is a very grave development that threatens the US with nuclear weapons. It means that Russian bombers will be ready to attack the US at a moment's notice just like in the cold war," frets Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defence analyst.

Western analysts said Putin appeared to have unilaterally abrogated the 1991 agreement to reduce strategic rocket forces and stop long-range bomber flights. I don't have the fine print on this but Russia has been carrying out these sorties all along with no protest from the US, though on a reduced scale. The reason long range bombers are so important to its defence is because, unlike the US, Russia has no foreign bases or aircraft carriers. This is old hat for anyone who follows military matters but is carefully left unmentioned in the Western media. Is the idea behind all the media hysteria that Russia should not have even a tiny fraction of the ability the US has to obliterate its enemy in case of attack? That it should "join" NATO as a doormat, lie down and close its eyes to the increasingly wild, aggressive actions of the US? Are Western readers expected to be so braindead that they can be lied to cavalierly through omission?

Putin was speaking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's (SCO) military exercises, the anti-terrorist "Peace Mission 2007" near Chelyabinsk, along with China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Moscow is looking to the SCO as a counterforce to NATO and the G8, a sort of neo-Warsaw Pact.

Together with the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles, an air defence missile system in the Moscow region and the announced desire to have a Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean, these various military developments are signs of the "asymmetrical" response to the United States that Putin spoke of in February when he announced a $250 billion plan to strengthen Russia's defences to 2025. Possibly it is merely a coincidence that they come in the wake of US plans to set up missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, though they hardly constitute evidence of a new arms race, considering that the US outspends Russia 20:1 on arms.

Interesting how Washington plays the media circus. The "visit" earlier this month of Russian bombers to the American military base on the Pacific Island of Guam no doubt miffed the US military and though the official US response was to deny that it had to scramble the jets -- apparently the pilots "smiled at each other and then peacefully went their separate ways" -- and that it couldn't care less about the "new" long range bomber missions, it was able to orchestrate the current media flurry while showing how restrained and wise it is. "It's not entirely surprising that the Russian Air Force, the Russian military, might engage in this kind of activity," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. He went on to taunt Russia for its pathetic show of strength: "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."

While the US conducts its many war games and flaunts treaties left and right, Russia now outsells it in military hardware in the third world, especially China with which it has a friendship pact. Iran is an eager customer of anti-missile defence systems (I wonder why?) and President Ahmedinejad attended the SCO meeting for the second time. This is hardly pathetic, despite Washington's derision. All these developments flow naturally from Washington's belligerent behaviour, making it clear at whose doorstep responsibility for the world's mad rush to arm itself to the teeth belongs.

Russian plans for a high-tech naval base in Syria were denied -- at least for the time being. The Russian Navy's lease on its base in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol runs out in 2017. The Russians have pledged to set up sophisticated air defences around the Syrian naval bases in Latakia and Tartus that will also provide an air umbrella for the entire Syrian coast and parts of the hinterland. Though the SU had a base in Tartus from 1971-91, abandoned only because the SU went bankrupt, Damascus still does not view Russia as a particularly reliable military ally. President Bashar Al-Assad likely remembers his father's distrust of Kremlin support during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which both the United States and the Soviet Union worked to ensure the war ended in a stalemate. Syria has also watched how the Russians have strung along the Iranians over the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor now running a decade behind schedule.

Meanwhile, in this week's news from Iraq, the US Air Force has been expanding its air bases in Iraq and adding entire squadrons in recent weeks. It even boasted that it is preparing to use a new robotic fighter known as the Reaper. This will no doubt bring a swift and successful conclusion to the resistance and bring a crowning success to US plans for democracy in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the air offensive at Tora Bora continued with air strikes on 14 August, no doubt using depleted uranium bombs to flush out those pesky Taliban (and leave a trail of poisonous radiation for millennia).

In his 2004 book The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson notes that at home, the US Department of Defense owns or leases more than 75 per cent of all federal buildings and is the largest landowner by far, with 29m acres (the size of North Korea). While the army controls the lion's share of the land (52 per cent), with the air force coming in second (33 per cent), what the navy lacks in domestic real estate, it more than makes up for in foreign naval bases and ports -- some 251 across the globe. There are even 234 military golf courses.

Still not satisfied with its present control of the planet, the Pentagon is now planning for future "sea-basing". No longer just a fleet on the world's oceans, sea-bases will be "a hybrid system-of- systems consisting of operations, ships, forces, offensive and defensive weapons, aircraft, communications and logistics." They "will help to assure access to areas where US military forces may be denied access to support land facilities." As a report by the Defense Science Board points out: "Seabases are sovereign, not subject to alliance vagaries."

Domination of the entire planet, the prerogative solely of the Pentagon, not Russia, includes outer space as well. Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired's Danger Room blog, the US Air Force Transformation Flight Plan of 2004 outlines these truly sinister plans: "Freedom of action in space is as important to the US as air power and sea power."

But massive military hardware, bombings and invasions do not necessarily add up to unchallenged dominance, as the undiminished resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan confirms, and as the US's Middle East clone found out last summer in Lebanon. The question remains: will Iraq be added to the list of permanently occupied territories? Or will it be added to a growing list of places that have resisted paying the rent on Planet Pentagon?

Russia is no doubt counting on the latter, and is manoeuvring to profit from the opportunity to secure a multipolar world that the hoped-for American defeat in Iraq presents. Hardly anything sinister in that. The real shame here is that international relations are reduced to one- upmanship, media games, sabre-rattling and -- when all else fails -- invasion and mass murder. This is what is truly pathetic, not Russia taking its aged bombers "out of mothballs".

Let's compare the US and Russia militarily

- The US spends more than 20 times what Russia does on military things -- $450 billion a year to Russia's $20 billion.

- The US has 12 aircraft carriers (plus a lucky 13th on order) to Russia's barely functional one.

- The US Air Force has 94 B-52s, 65 B-1Bs, and 21 B-2s (Stealth) long range bombers vs 79 ageing Russian bombers.

- The US has 850 bases around the world (leaving aside NATO bases, its bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and "agreements" for the use of other airports in 76 countries) from which to bomb any country in the world vs Russia's handful in ex-Soviet states close to home.

- The US never ratified the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty and proceeded to undermine it with its expansion of NATO and plans to open missile bases in eastern Europe prompting Russia to call a moratorium on it.

- The US recently announced it will cancel the START1 treaty with Russia due to the exigencies of its "war on terror".

- The US regularly carries out real live bombing sorties from its foreign bases and aircraft carriers all around the world as part of invasions of countries in conjunction with NATO (Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq).


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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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