MOSCOW (AP) - Soldiers in Chechnya cast absentee ballots today in Russia's presidential election and a top general said they overwhelmingly back acting President Vladimir Putin, who has made building a powerful military a key part of restoring Russia's global clout.
Reviving the military is one of the few firm ideas Putin has offered as he seeks a full term in March 26 elections. It's an idea that has gone down well with Russians nostalgic for the past, helping give Putin a commanding lead in the election race.
``Our country was a great, powerful and strong state and this is not possible if we do not have strong armed forces,'' he said shortly after becoming acting president when Boris Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31.
Rebuilding the military will difficult and expensive. The Russian economy is in shambles and the government is desperately short of cash. But Putin has already begun boosting the armed forces, including backing the military offensive to retake rebel Chechnya.
Among his first actions as acting president, Putin approved plans to step up the development and purchase of modern weapons to revive conventional forces. Military spending has increased, although no figures are available.
Modern weapons, including tanks, artillery and advanced fighter jets, are being developed, even if the government can't afford to do more than produce prototypes. Some of the weapons are being offered to other nations such as India to help underwrite production for the Russian military.
``Putin has already done quite a lot for the armed forces. He has shown strong will and the military like it,'' said Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office.
A top commander of Russia's war in Chechnya, Col. Gen. Gennady Troshev, echoed that sentiment Friday as troops began voting.
``We know this man who is together with the military fulfilling this task today while supporting us, the military,'' he said.
Putin's calls to revive the shattered armed forces have earned strong support from top generals and many ordinary Russians who see the West as a threat. Close relations with the West soured under Yeltsin, who objected to NATO's expansion and its campaign against Yugoslavia, a Russian ally.
Putin, a former KGB officer, says the United States and other nations must treat Russia as an equal. He has shown a willingness to be conciliatory, offering to revive nuclear weapons reductions and even mused about joining NATO.
But even if relations with the West are reasonable, Putin will put the military ahead of most priorities because making Russia strong is his main goal, analysts say.
``Putin's promises to support the military contradict his pledge to stick to rigid financial policies and continue free-market reforms. Choosing between the two, he is likely to take the pro-military course,'' said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst.
For all the tough talk, reviving the Russian military will be a huge, perhaps impossible, task. The Russian economy has been in recession for a decade. The current defense budget is a paltry $5.1 billion, compared with annual U.S. defense spending of about $300 billion.
Russian defense officials paint a dismal picture of the military, which has been cut from 5 million personnel to 1.2 million in the past decade:
- The air force has not received a single new plane since 1992 and none are expected before 2001. Fuel is so scarce that pilots average 25 hours flying time a year, compared to a minimum 200 hours in Western air forces.
- Seventy percent of navy ships need major repairs. Scores of ships have sunk because their hulls rusted out. Just three nuclear submarines are thought to be on patrol at any one time out of a force that numbered more than 100 vessels a decade ago.
- Nuclear forces are fast approaching obsolescence and just a handful of new missiles have been built. Russia's nuclear arsenal of 6,000 warheads could shrink to a few hundred in the next decade, analysts say.
- The army, locked in a costly guerrilla war in Chechnya, hasn't received new weapons in years. Soldiers often are short of food and clothing, and teen-age infantrymen are sent to Chechnya with little or no training.
Still, Putin appears to be a determined leader and is likely to have some success boosting the military, although analysts predict a constant struggle between too many tasks and too little money.