Hitting Political Turbulence

Last Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin donned a military flight suit to fly a Tu-160 supersonic long-range strategic bomber. The plane has a four-man crew and no space for passengers, so Putin occupied the place of the first pilot.

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The Russian media covered Putin's flight extensively. It was reported that Putin's Tu-160 performed a midair refueling operation and fired conventional long-range cruise missiles at targets near the northern city of Vorkuta. The Defense Ministry announced that two more Tu-160s with fully professional crews were flying alongside Putin's and that "two of the planes fired missiles."

Yet this seems very unlikely. First, the launch of a new experimental X-555 cruise missile with a conventional warhead is a very risky mission to undertake with the president aboard.

Second, for the Russian Air Force, midair refueling is also a risky endeavor. Only Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers can be refueled in flight, ever since refueling gear was removed from the long-range Tu-22M3 planes in accordance with the START I arms control treaty.

The only remaining option, the heavy Il-78 tanker, has four powerful jets and creates a great deal of turbulence, which does not allow fighters, helicopters and other light aircraft to be refueled. Heavy Su-27 fighters refueled in midair several times in the 1990s, but this experiment was not regularly repeated and the pilots got medals for the missions.

For a Tu-160 to refuel midair from a Il-78, the two pilots of the strategic bomber crew must work in close cooperation. It's not only against regulations, but virtually impossible to refuel if one of the pilot seats is occupied by someone who is not a trained strategic bomber pilot. The refueling shown to the public was apparently performed by another Tu-160 as an exercise.

Presidents often take to the air when they need to make political waves. Back in 2000, in the run-up to his first election, Putin flew as passenger on a two-seater Su-27UB fighter-trainer and went out to sea on board a nuclear submarine. In 2004, during his campaign to be elected for a second term, Putin again went underwater on a nuclear sub. In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush took a ride on board a military plane and sat in one of the pilot seats. After landing on an aircraft carrier, Bush announced "mission accomplished" in Iraq while posing in a flight suit.

Both Putin and Bush had upcoming elections in mind when they showed off. But what is the Russian president up to now? Under the Constitution, in just over two years Putin must leave office. Why is the Russian press gushing over Putin's heroic deeds when there are no national elections planned any time soon?

Putin is more a bureaucrat than a public politician: He does not seem to like electioneering or meeting and greeting. He only does so when pressed by an election team. Now Putin is not only flying bomber missions and going to sea on warships but also hugging random citizens near his summer residence in Sochi. Information coming from the Kremlin suggests that a campaign to re-elect Putin for another term has already begun and that the vote will likely come not in 2008, but much earlier, perhaps in a year or less.

The Kremlin is terrified by the slow but steady decline in Putin's popularity and by the thought that a serious opposition force could consolidate by 2008. Authorities appear to be nervous that a national election as planned in 2008 could even spark a democratic revolution like the ones in Ukraine or Georgia. A snap election right now, when no one but the Kremlin is ready, may be seen as the best way to avoid the dreaded revolution scenario.

During a recent visit to Finland, Putin publicly hinted for the first time that he would not be against serving another term. And for months, Kremlin insiders have been discussing a plan to merge Russia and Belarus so that in 2006 Putin could be elected president of a united state for seven years, with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko as vice president. Wrangling with Lukashenko, who has not yet given final approval, is making this plan problematic, however. And regional politicians continue to suggest that Putin will stay on.

The Kremlin may be too terrified to wait much longer. The ideology of the coming Putin re-election has been already chosen by Kremlin spin doctors: nationalism and militaristic anti-Westernism. The pretext to change the Constitution may be announced very soon.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.