Thursday, September 04, 2008

No naval build-up in Black Sea, NATO assures Russia

by Martin Sieff

Washington (UPI) Sep 3, 2008

Watch for possible tensions and dangerous taunting close encounters between Russia's Black Sea Fleet with U.S. and other NATO warships bringing relief or watching guard over the embattled former Soviet republic of Georgia. Adm. Eduard Baltin, a former Russian fleet commander, warned last week that all NATO and U.S. warships currently operating in the Black Sea could be sunk by a single salvo from a Russian missile cruiser within 20 minutes.

Baltin's bloodcurdling comments were made Aug. 26 and were reported by RIA Novosti three days later. They followed a statement issued by Russia's General Staff on Aug. 26 saying the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization currently had no less than 10 warships operating in the Black Sea, which the Kremlin has considered an effective Russian lake for almost a quarter of a millennium since the days of the Empress Catherine the Great.

RIA Novosti said the NATO vessels included three U.S. Navy ships, the Polish frigate General Pulaski, the German frigate FGS Lubeck, and the Spanish guided-missile frigate Admiral Juan de Borbon, along with four Turkish ships. It said the size of the NATO force was expected to almost double with another eight warships already scheduled to join it.

But Baltin reassured the Russian public that even if it grew larger, the U.S. and NATO deployment would be no match for Russian maritime firepower in the region.

"Despite the apparent strength, the NATO naval group in the Black Sea is not battle-worthy," he said. "If necessary, a single missile salvo from the Moskva missile cruiser and two or three missile boats would be enough to annihilate the entire group."

"Within 20 minutes the waters would be clear." he said.

The admiral did add that he assessed the dangers of a conflict breaking out between the Russian and NATO/U.S. warships on the Black Sea as almost non-existent.

"We will not strike first, and they do not look like people with suicidal tendencies," he said.

RIA Novosti noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet, along with its centerpiece, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, also boasted "at least three destroyers, two guided missile frigates, four guided missile corvettes and six missile boats."

However, Baltin's statement reflected a level of tension and saber-rattling between Russia and NATO that would have been inconceivable only a few months ago.

The RIA Novosti report noted that NATO had made clear its determination to send relief supplies to the former Soviet republic of Georgia after around one-third of its territory was occupied by the Russian army in response to a Georgian assault Aug. 7 on the Russian-backed secessionist province of South Ossetia.

On Aug. 26 Russia defiantly threw down another gauntlet against the United States and NATO by recognizing South Ossetia and another secessionist Georgian province, Abkhazia, as independent nations, defying Western warnings not to do so.

RIA Novosti also noted that Russia's General Staff has warned that the NATO naval presence in the Black Sea "cannot fail to provoke concern."

The Russian news agency also cited what it described as "unidentified sources in the Russian military" as claiming that NATO was gathering what it described as "a surface strike group" in the region.

RIA Novosti cited what it called "Russian military intelligence sources" as saying the NATO ships already operating in the Black Sea deployed more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Russia can afford a new Cold War

How much would a new Cold War actually cost Russia? An analysis published in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant last week and reported by RIA Novosti concluded the Kremlin might have to increase its current level of defense spending by 500 percent.

"The arms race requires very serious money. The consolidated budget currently earmarks 2.5 percent of GDP, or 8 percent of total spending, for national defense programs. A return to the Soviet era means that 12 (percent to) 13 percent of GDP, or almost one half of the budget, will go on war," Kommersant wrote, according to the RIA Novosti report.

The Kremlin's huge financial reserves, accumulated thanks to soaring prices paid for Russian oil and gas exports in recent years, would allow such costs to be carried without cutting spending on domestic social programs at first, Kommersant said. But eventually the Russian government would be forced to make cutbacks there.

At first, the hugely increased arms spending could be financed from these "hedge fund" reserves, which Kommersant estimated at $165 billion. But this would first lead to a rise in the already significant inflation rocking the Russian economy. And within three to four years non-military spending certainly would have to be curtailed. Elderly pensioners would feel the impact first, the paper concluded.

Escalating tensions with the United States and its European allies also would revive capital flight, Kommersant warned. The newspaper estimated that this could slash Russia's currently healthy rates of annual economic growth by 8 percent to 9 percent, halting all GDP expansion in its tracks.