Russia returned to the global stage Friday as a first-rank military and technological power by launching a ‘fifth generation’ fighter plane, with futuristic characteristics of stealth, sustained supersonic cruise, and integrated weapons.
By Fred Weir
Vladimir Putin is jubilant, the Russian aviation industry is filled with pride, and even normally skeptical military experts say they’re truly impressed by reports Friday that Russia has successfully test-flown the first prototype of a “fifth generation” fighter plane.
They all may have good reasons to cheer. Building such a plane is so expensive, complex, and technologically sophisticated that, until now, only the United States has been able to field an operational version of one: the F-22 Raptor.
According to news reports, Russia’s venerable Sukhoi company – maker of many famous Soviet warplanes – sent the V-tailed, swept-wing Sukhoi T-50 on its maiden flight for 47 minutes Friday near Komsomolsk-na-Amur in Russia’s far east (see video here) and it exceeded all expectations.
“We started flight tests of the fifth-generation aircraft today,” Sukhoi CEO Mikhail Pogosyan told Russian news agencies. “I am strongly convinced that this project will excel its Western rivals in cost-effectiveness and these planes will constitute the backbone of the Russian Air Force for the next few decades.”
A fighter of the “fifth generation” should have futuristic characteristics of stealth, sustained supersonic cruise, multi-role capabilities, integrated weapons and navigation systems that are controlled by artificial intelligence, over-the-horizon radar visibility and other cutting-edge wizardry.
Experts say that the mere fact that Russia can put one into the air announces its return to the global stage as a first-rank military and technological power.
“This is an epic event, because it’s the first time in post-Soviet history that [the Russian military industry] has been able to create something brand new,” Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, says in a telephone interview.
“Everything we produced after the USSR’s collapse was based on Soviet designs; nobody thought we could make anything so technologically complicated as this. But now, strange as it may seem, this shows Russia’s level is very high.”
Kremlin leaders have been promising to build this new aircraft for years as part of a broader effort to re-arm and modernize Russia’s crumbling Soviet-era armed forces. Though Russia handily won its brief 2008 war with neighboring Georgia, the conflict revealed massive shortcomings in its military machine, including disastrously poor air support for ground forces and almost nonexistent aerial reconnaissance capability.
Prime Minister Putin praised the T-50′s first flight as a “big step” in restoring Russia’s traditional place as a global military power, and pledged that the air force will start receiving production models of the plane in about three years.
As Russia’s president, Putin launched a sweeping, $200-billion rearmament program that aims to introduce new generations of nuclear submarines, intercontinental missiles, tanks, and aircraft carriers for the armed forces within the next five years.
Experts say the T-50 fighter, which has been developed in partnership with Russia’s leading arms client India, will also go far toward restoring the tattered reputation of Russia’s military-industrial complex as a leading supplier of weaponry in global markets.
“This is really good advertising; it shows buyers of Russian-made hardware that we can produce the most modern weapons and also improve them,” says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planner who now works as a civilian adviser to the Russian Defense Ministry.
“We invested a lot in this plane, and the fact that we can fly it has a big psychological impact,” he says. “It has a huge symbolic meaning for Russia itself.”
But skeptics say we’d best wait for more details about the top-secret plane of which we have seen, so far, only a few superficial images.
“We see the plane has some external characteristics that are new, but we have no way of knowing whether it actually possesses the technological features that would make it a fighter of the fifth generation,” says Alexander Golts, military expert for the independent Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an online news magazine.
“It’s great that it took off. Hurray. But I want to know a lot more about it.”
Move by Turkey gives Putin way to keep treaty organization at arm’s length
Editor’s Note: The following report is excerpted from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, the premium online newsletter published by the founder of WND. Subscriptions are $99 a year or, for monthly trials, just $9.95 per month for credit card users, and provide instant access for the complete reports.
As Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, turns away from its Western links, it is aligning itself more and more with Iran, Syria and Russia, especially because of its quickly developing energy and trade connections to the central part of what was the old Soviet Union, according to a report from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
From a strategic standpoint, the development gives Moscow an opportunity to further undermine a plan by NATO to spread its security arrangement further east in a region Moscow considers to be its sphere of influence.
During a recent visit to Moscow to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed multi-billion dollar agreements on trade and energy.
While both parties agreed to increase trade from the current $35 billion to $100 billion within the next five years, the most significant development was an agreement in their strategic relationship on energy cooperation.
In addition to concessions on various pipelines between the two countries, Erdogan pledged to pursue Russian construction and operation of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
Keep in touch with the most important breaking news stories about critical developments around the globe with Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, the premium, online intelligence news source edited and published by the founder of WND.
The Turks were left with little choice but to involve Russia more in its energy future, given that Turkey imports some 70 percent of its natural gas from Russia.
That dependency also gives the Russians considerable political and economic leverage over Ankara and increases Moscow’s influence over Europe’s energy future through greater control of existing and proposed pipelines that provide European countries with more than 40 percent of their energy needs.
Various pipelines with Turkish participation as a gate to the West, however, are but one source of control Russia is exhibiting over the Turks.
The more significant one is Russia’s proposal to construct and operate Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
Erdogan and Putin signed a commitment to construct the nuclear power plant, even though there is some domestic opposition due to the existing heavy reliance on Russia for energy.
The plant is to be built on the Mediterranean coast near Akkuyu. A consortium to construct the nuclear power plant includes Russia’s Atomstroyexport, Inter Rao Eus and Turkey’s Park Teknik.
Putin said that Russia had “significant advantages over the competition” to build the nuclear plant in Turkey. In one sense, he was alluding to the virtual energy grip Moscow enjoys over Ankara.
Russia’s National Media Group cites economic motives in moving REN TV and the outspoken St. Petersburg Channel Five. But critics worry the partnering move with Russia Today may presage a loss of editorial freedom
Russia’s last two independent TV voices, citing financial distress, have announced a major “restructuring” that may involve partnering with state agencies, with what many liberal critics fear could be an inevitable loss of editorial freedom.
Officials of the National Media Group, which owns the independent REN TV and the outspoken St. Petersburg Channel Five, insist they’re just looking for economic efficiencies in the reported plans to move REN’s operations into a giant Moscow TV center run by the Kremlin’s pocket news agency, RIA-Novosti, and home to its 24-hour English-language satellite TV station Russia Today (RT). But liberals say they’ve seen this happen several times before, beginning with the Kremlin’s stealthy use of a commercial dispute to take over the only nonstate nationwide TV network, NTV, at the beginning of the Vladimir Putin era in 2001.
“These two small channels are the very last islands of media freedom in Russia, and if they are to be restructured in the ways we have seen, all too often in the past, they will become part of the official propaganda machine,” says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy. “We are all watching this process with deep fears that, once again, economic optimization will actually lead to censorship. In Russia’s TV landscape today, there is basically no freedom.”
RUSSIA TODAY: TECHNICAL SUPPORT, EDITORIAL INFLUENCE?
In the past, the Kremlin’s chosen vehicle for taking over critical media assets was the state-owned natural-gas goliath, Gazprom, but today liberals are pointing their fingers at a surprising new culprit: Russia Today. Started up less than four years ago as a Kremlin project to counter Western “misperceptions” about Russia, RT has burgeoned under a lavish flow of state funding into a huge operation that now boasts an Arabic-language service and a soon-to-launch Spanish service. According to the station’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, a new US branch of RT is set to begin broadcasting from studios in Washington, D.C., in January, and will be running special US-oriented programming, 24/7, within a year.
Ms. Simonyan says it’s logical that little stations like REN TV would want to partner with RT, because the English-language station now possesses one of the most modern and sophisticated broadcasting centers in the country.
“Because of this, we can support them technologically,” she says. “We are not going to interfere with their editorial content. That’s not the idea at all.”
That pledge is also offered by officials of the two beleaguered stations, who say they are forced to make radical changes due to sagging advertising revenues and rising shareholder demands to show a profit. “We need to find new premises for REN TV, and we may outsource some technical functions,” says Asya Pomeranets, a company public relations representative. “But the stations will retain their distinctive content.”
Simonyan argues that RT, which offers a variety of news, talk and documentary programming, itself enjoys “absolute editorial independence” from its main financial sponsor, the Kremlin. “What we do is offer a different view of the world, a list of stories you won’t see covered in the mainstream media,” she says. “Our goal is to do good journalism and increase our audience, and not to please someone up there.”
‘I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE THIS DAY’
Still, giant state-funded broadcasters like RT are thriving, while little independent outlets like REN are gasping for air, and that points to an inevitable outcome, some experts argue.
“What RT makes is a packaged propaganda product, which is bought and paid for by the Kremlin,” says Alexei Samokhvalov, a former director of REN TV who now heads the independent National TV and Radio Research Center in Moscow.
“In another country, it might seem normal for TV stations to share technical facilities while maintaining separate editorial lines, but in Russia it does not work that way,” Mr. Samokhvalov says.
“If REN TV moves into the RT’s headquarters, and becomes dependent upon them for its very existence, it will lose its independence. When I was director of REN TV, we prized our independence. I never thought I’d see this day,” he adds.
REN TV has grown from a tiny independent station into a nationwide TV network that now enjoys about 6 percent of Russia’s market share, a tiny blip compared with the three state-owned TV behemoths, but beloved to Russian liberals because of its relatively independent editorial stance.
“If you compare with the other media outlets, REN is by far the most liberal, most outspoken, and shows the greatest degree of independence,” says Vladimir Pozner, a leading Russian TV personality. “If it were to lose its independence, I would find that very disheartening.”
KREMLIN MEDIA CRACKDOWN
When Vladimir Putin came to power, nearly a decade ago, he began cracking down on Russia’s once diverse and combative media spectrum, using economic levers of influence rather than Soviet-style brute force to corral journalists, critics have long said. The state-backed takeover of NTV by Gazprom produced a chilling effect on TV broadcasters around the country. The Kremlin subsequently orchestrated the downfall of smaller TV networks that failed to come to heel, including TV-6 in 2002 and TVS the following year. Some public opinion services, which provide journalists with raw information, were also brought under state control, leaving only a handful of small-circulation outfits, such as the liberal Ekho Moskvi radio station, that some critics say are allowed to exist as political window-dressing.
“Very clearly, the government wants that kind of window to remain open, because it’s a way of saying ‘Hey, we have democracy in Russia,’ to the rest of the world,” says Mr. Pozner. “Maybe they see REN TV playing this kind of role, and perhaps that will save it.”
Russia’s beleaguered liberals, who have watched the political landscape turn into a Sovietesque one-party show under Putin and his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, say they hold out little hope for the survival of the last media holdouts.
“Unfortunately, everything that has happened on the TV media front since Putin became president in 2000 suggests that the last vestiges of independent television will be muzzled as well,” says Mr. Ryzhkov.
Former leader Mikhail Gorbachev and others are outraged after last week’s elections, which only 3 percent of Russians believed were fair, according to a poll.
MOSCOW – What can one single vote, confirmed missing, tell us about the current state of democracy in Russia?
A lot, says Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party. He says that the lost vote in question – his own – offers startling evidence to back widespread opposition claims that regional polls held across Russia last week were stage-managed to ensure the victory of pro-Kremlin forces.
The United Russia (UR) party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, won about 80 percent of all contested positions in some 7,000 districts around the country. In the crucial center of Moscow, UR swept up 32 of the 35 city council seats.
Along with millions of other Russians, Mr. Mitrokhin went with his family to vote at their local polling station, No. 192, in Moscow’s tony Khamovniki district on election day. He knows for sure that he voted for his own party ticket.
But when the final official tally was released last weekend, it showed that zero votes for Yabloko were registered at polling station No. 192.
“We know there were massive falsifications in the vote counting, but really, not a single vote for Yabloko?” says Mitrokhin. “It’s almost as if they wanted to prove I don’t exist as a living being. It looks like the authorities are not even trying to pretend any longer that we are having real elections.”
Gorbachev: democratic system is ‘maimed’
A public opinion survey published this week by the daily Noviye Izvestia newspaper found that just 3 percent of respondents believe the elections were a fair and true democratic exercise. A third thought that UR’s victory was due to “massive falsifications” while a further 44 percent said the party benefited unduly from its command of “administrative resources,” meaning official influence, state media backing, and access to government funds.
Yabloko has documented multiple cases of what is says is official fraud, coercion, and other legal violations in the election campaign and subsequent voting, some of which has been translated and posted on the party’s English-language website (http://www.eng.yabloko.ru/).
But Mitrokhin’s outrage over what looks like the most seriously miscarried electoral exercise in Russia’s post-Soviet history has been increasingly echoed by independent commentators, including the father of Russia’s troubled democracy, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
“In the eyes of everyone, elections have turned into a mockery of the people and people have great distrust over how their votes are used,” Mr. Gorbachev told the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, of which he is part owner, on Monday.
“What is democracy when the people don’t participate in it?” he said. “The electoral system has been utterly maimed. We need an alternative.”
‘Everyone knows the electoral process is dirty’
Last week, scores of opposition parliamentarians staged a walkout from the State Duma to dramatize their complaints about the elections, but by Monday all but a few deputies of the Communist Party had returned.
The chairman of Russia’s official Electoral Commission, Vladimir Churov, warned the protesting lawmakers that they might be breaking the law, and added if they had doubts about the process they could challenge them by “signing an official protocol” of complaint. If that doesn’t work, he added, they can “file a lawsuit.”
Lawsuits against electoral authorities in the past have almost always been dismissed by state-dominated courts.
“Everyone knows that the electoral process is dirty, and that UR basically controls the system,” says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “In fact, the whole world sees this, and it’s causing serious damage to the image of the country’s top leaders. The Kremlin needs to take action to change this situation,” before the next cycle of elections in just over two years time, he says.
Since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000, Russia’s political system has been forcibly reshaped to eliminate pesky opposition parties and game elections to favor the giant and reliably pro-Kremlin UR. Mr. Putin’s party now controls the vast majority of regional legislatures, most big city councils, and a more than two-thirds majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
That system, dubbed “managed democracy,” reached a climax last year when Putin ushered his hand-picked successor Dmitri Medvedev into the Kremlin against virtually no opposition.
Kremlin facade of democracy
The Kremlin’s efforts to create a facade that looks like genuinely contested elections – while ruthlessly eliminating serious contenders – took on almost comical dimensions in polls to choose a new mayor for Sochi, the host of the 2014 Olympic Games, where Putin has invested about $12 billion of the state’s cash and much of his own personal credibility.
In the event last March, Putin’s candidate won with a 77 percent majority, while opposition candidates and democracy activists launched futile protests over what they called heavy-handed state manipulation at every stage of the process.
But experts say the wave of regional elections carried out last week make those polls look almost fair by comparison.
“As we have seen in the past, candidates who were unwanted by the authorities were simply disqualified early in the process,” says Andrei Buzin, chairman of the Interregional Association of Voters, a grassroots monitoring group. “As before, the police were often deployed to block opposition activities and meetings. But, unlike the past, when we didn’t see direct falsifications, there was a lot of falsification in the vote counting in these elections.”
Mr. Buzin says “the situation is getting worse, subjectively and objectively, much worse.”
Former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who faced huge obstacles in his bid to run for mayor of Sochi last April, says that this time around no candidate from his Solidarnost movement was allowed to run for city office in Moscow.
“Every single one of our candidates was disqualified, supposedly due to fraudulent signatures on their nomination forms,” says Mr. Nemtsov. Even Nemtsov’s own signature on one of the forms was declared invalid by officials, he says.
“It’s absolutely terrible, like an election in the German Democratic Republic [the former East Germany],” he says. “Forget about elections in this country. It’s just fraud, manipulation, and corruption. It’s a great big fiction.”