The Russian military, debilitated by declining budgets and facing international criticism of its offensive in Chechnya, has undertaken a series of Cold War-style exercises that Pentagon analysts believe are intended to send a message of determination to the West.
Yesterday, on the eve of a summit in Turkey where President Clinton is expected to urge Russian President Boris Yeltsin to rein in his troops, the Russian Navy test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile from a nuclear submarine at a distant target for the first time since 1995.
"Both for internal and external consumption, the Russian military is broadcasting the message that it is not out for the count as far as the West is concerned," said a senior Pentagon official. "Do we notice the increased activity? Yeah, sure. Do we consider it destabilizing in and of itself? Not at all."
Since June, the Russians have engaged in missile, submarine and aircraft exercises clearly patterned on U.S. and Soviet activities during the Cold War. But rather than posing a threat, the Russian efforts have been viewed by the Pentagon as a reflection of Moscow's weakness.
"After being starved for funds for most of a decade, after seeing the U.S. bomb Iraq and Serbia at will, you have senior officers in the Russian military anxious to show that they still have a role to play in world affairs," said a senior U.S. military officer.
In August, for example, an Oscar-class Russian submarine entered the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in nearly four years and simulated an attack on a U.S. carrier battle group. The American ships essentially ignored it, Pentagon officials said.
In September, another Oscar shadowed U.S. ships off San Diego, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest--performing such old tricks in the Eastern Pacific for the first time since 1997, the officials said.
"This submarine activity looks the same as it did in the Soviet days, except that now the Russians have fewer than 20 top-grade attack submarines in operating condition, compared to more than 200 for the Soviets," said a senior U.S. intelligence analyst.
American officials acknowledge that the U.S. Navy also plays cat-and-mouse with Russian forces, though with far less intensity than during the Cold War.
Civilian and military analysts believe that the Russians began to engage in the chest-beating exercises as a response to NATO's air campaign against Serbia, a traditional Russian ally.
"Last spring when we were bombing Belgrade every night, the question the Russian generals faced was 'Why isn't NATO afraid of us?' and they decided to do something they thought might give the West at least a little scare," said retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute, an independent research organization.
The immediate result was the Russian Army's sprint to establish itself in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, ahead of NATO troops at the end of the war. Then, two months ago, Russia launched an offensive against Islamic fighters in Chechnya. That effort has included the most aggressive use of missiles since the 1991 Gulf War, with the Russians firing some 60 Scuds and more modern SS-21s.
Odom and other analysts outside the Pentagon see the Chechnya bombing and Cold War-style exercises as part of a pattern. "The Russian generals are so frustrated that they are lashing out in a number of different ways at the same time," Odom said.
Pentagon analysts are less certain that the war in Chechnya is related to the submarine, missile and aircraft exercises. "I would not exclude the possibility that all the dots connect, but the current thinking is that there is no direct connection between Chechnya and the other events," said a senior defense official.
This is an important distinction, because the Clinton administration has decided the exercises are essentially benign. "We are not ignoring them. We are watching them very carefully, but so far nothing has transpired that requires a response of any kind from our side," the official said.
The administration has responded, at least rhetorically, to Russia's actions in Chechnya. Clinton is expected to step up criticism of civilian casualties when he, Yeltsin and other leaders meet at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that begins in Istanbul today.
The chief of the Russian Air Force, Col. Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, yesterday warned the West not to interfere in Chechnya. "Just to remind them, Russia is not Iraq, nor is it Yugoslavia," he said at a Moscow news conference. "We will deal decisively with any interference. Let them not think we are totally impotent."
As if to underline that point, the Russian Navy fired two SS-N-20 Sturgeon missiles from a Typhoon-class submarine in the Barents Sea. The missiles hit targets 3,100 miles away on the Kamchatka peninsula and "demonstrated top combat readiness," announced Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, Navy commander.
In previous launches in recent years, SS-N-20s have been destroyed shortly after liftoff under arms control protocols, rather than completing a flight to a target. Moreover, yesterday's test was Russia's third missile launch in a month.
On Nov. 2, Russia fired an interceptor missile designed to shoot down incoming missiles, the first such test in several years. In October, it test-launched a land-based SS-19 Stiletto intercontinental ballistic missile.
Correspondent David Hoffman contributed to this report from Moscow.