January 30, 2009:
Former Russian president, and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, announced that, despite the current recession, and low oil price, Russia will continue the big spending begun two years ago, to rebuild the armed forces. This is a popular moved, and considered necessary for "restoring Russia's place in the world" (becoming a superpower again), and making the "Red Army" (a Soviet era term) once more a feared force.
Russia can't become a superpower again, because it's population is shrinking (low birth rate, like the rest of Europe), and all those nuclear weapons are great for defending the country, but you need non-nuclear forces to throw your weight around. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia has lost over 90 percent of its combat power. It was disarmament by starvation (massive cuts in the defense budget) and neglect (the military leadership tried to hold on to more equipment than they could afford to maintain or operate, making the situation worse.) Digging out of the hole is going to cost a few hundred billion dollars and over a decade of effort. The government increased the annual defense budget to $38 billion two years ago, and is spending over $25 billion a year (for the next six years, and the last two) to rebuild the conventional forces. It takes time to rebuild fleets and armies.
The quickest things to fix are aircraft. Thus long range bombers, especially the Tu-95s, were refurbished, upgraded, and kept in the air over international waters a lot. This is mainly a PR exercise for domestic consumption. What also plays to the crowd is "resisting NATO." The Cold War enemy is seen as surrounding Russia with anti-Russian alliances. The American anti-missile systems being built in Eastern Europe, to block Iranian missiles from blackmailing Europe, are depicted as an attempt to stop Russian missiles. This appears absurd in the West, but makes perfect sense to most Russians. "They" are out to get us, is what most Russians think. Decades of Soviet propaganda about foreign plots to destroy Russia, enhanced by the widespread destruction of World War II, have left their mark.
But the ground forces are a mess, with most of the weapons and equipment 20-30 years old and falling apart. Over a hundred thousand armored vehicles were junked, or "put into storage" (parked somewhere out-of-the-way, where they can rot quietly) since 1991. Only the best, least used and most recently built stuff has been kept. Even that gear is not much good, and replacements have to be bought in the next 5-10 years, or the army will be reduced to a bunch of guys with assault rifles, mortars and old trucks.
The air force is getting new planes, and more upgrades on existing aircraft. This works for warplanes, with many Western nations using 30 year old, but recently refurbished, warplanes. Ships are another matter, as Russian warships were not designed to be refurbished. So new ones have to be built. The Russians are concentrating on submarines, but new attack boats (SSNs) and boomers (SSBNs carrying ballistic missiles.)