Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 129

Unconverted Cold Warriors on both sides must have been overcome with nostalgia over the last few days. It has been just like the bad old days, with Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers probing NATO air defenses around Iceland and Norway, NATO reconnaissance planes and ships trailing Russian warships, and Moscow expelling an American military attache. These events took place against the back-drop of Zapad (West)-99, the largest military exercise in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was little which was subtle in the scenario–it was clearly designed to test the Russian–and Belarusan (see the Monitor, June 24)–ability to counter NATO military “aggression.” A Russian military spokesman stressed that planning for the exercise had been underway for more than a year and that it should not be seen as a reaction to the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. Yet few could doubt that there were some scenario “adjustments” stemming from the worsening Russian relationship with NATO due to the recent events in the Balkans. The strategic bomber forays would be the most obvious candidates.

Over the past year military exercises have once again become commonplace in all branches of the Russian armed forces. True, they have been severely limited by the paucity of funds and the decrepit material state of the Russian war machine, but they hint that the nadir has been passed in the painful restructuring process. Yet, while Zapad-99 might have served as a warning to NATO, it also highlighted the fact that the Russian military is but a shadow of its Soviet counterpart. Even accepting the highest estimates of men, ships, submarines and planes involved, Zapad-99 paled in comparison with similar Soviet maneuvers. Instead of the fleets of nuclear-capable strategic bombers that would be needed to saturate NATO defenses, the Russians mustered but two aging propeller-driven Tu-95 missile carriers and the same number of more modern, supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. These latter planes represent one-third of the entire Russian inventory of these bombers and could well be the only two which are operational (Russian and international media, July 1-2).