Lots of Bark but Little Bite

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Since Vladimir Putin came to power and steadily increased the country's defense budget, there has been a lot of talk about Russia's resurgent military power and its threat to the United States and Europe. Last winter, for example, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was sent on a cruise through the Atlantic, only its second trip in that ocean since the end of the Cold War.

Moreover, in February, a low-level Tu-95 bomber flew over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and other U.S. vessels in international waters near Japan. This, along with the display of weapons during the May 9 military parade, was trumpeted as an example of Russia's reborn military strength.

The overflight was certainly a surprise, but only because the propeller-driven planes, which were introduced in 1956, were able to stay in the air. But one would have to ask why Russian strategic bombers would "buzz" an aircraft carrier? It serves no operational purpose, and, far from demonstrating a new strength, it underscores an old weakness -- an inability to project any kind of power other than nuclear weapons.

Military officials openly hype the notion of resurging Russian power, and some defense observers in Washington seem only too willing to start preparing for a return to Cold War conditions. But that would be a waste of the United States' time and money. Russia's military flexing is hollow, and its aggressive arms sales are doing little to rebuild the country's ability to compete with United States.

The reality is that the Russian military remains underfunded and poorly equipped. Unless it elects to employ its still-dangerous and potent nuclear arsenal, the military is not a threat to anyone outside its own neighborhood. Defense leaders understand their situation, of course, and had hoped that the increase in sales of Russian military weapons abroad would help fund their own needs back home. But this has not happened.

Behind steady weapons sales to China and India and new contracts with smaller countries like Algeria and Venezuela, Russia has gained market share in arms sales to developing countries, perennially placing first or second among exporters. But those successes have not resulted in the hoped for benefits for the military.

Profits from foreign sales have been plowed back into the arms companies themselves and the pockets of newly rich government officials rather than into weapons for the country's military. When military hardware rolled across Red Square in May for the first time in 17 years, it was as if the tanks and weapons had been parked nearby, waiting since the last parade. All of the equipment displayed this year was already produced or under development in the early 1990s.

Although state television announcers lauded BMP-3 personnel carriers and T-90 tanks as the latest technologies, the country's arms manufacturers are still making and selling the same equipment they have been for the last decade and a half, with only minor modifications.

Russian equipment has traditionally been popular with smaller militaries because it is inexpensive and rugged. But even those qualities are eroding. India has attempted to return the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, which Russia sold to India for $1 billion, because it doesn't work. Algeria similarly returned 15 MiG-29 fighters this year because they were of inferior quality.

Despite efforts to streamline arms manufacturers and make them more competitive globally, they have not produced much for the military at home. In the past 17 years, Russia has signed contracts with India alone for over 640 T-90 tanks but has delivered less than half of this amount to its own forces. The country's shipbuilding industry has been unable to complete construction of the one new nuclear-missile submarine in its shop for over 12 years.

The real audience for the Kremlin's muscle flexing and increased arms sales is the domestic audience and not the United States. Publicizing military achievements, even hollow ones, is intended to build confidence in the government and counter the realities of corruption and hazing in the military. Increasing foreign arms sales is about building an industrial base in Russia that can create jobs and improve the standard of living.

The United States can save its money and stop worrying. The Russian military is not a threat.

Kevin Ryan, a former U.S. defense attache to Russia, is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.