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Putin watches as missile launch fails
Updated: 2004-02-18 08:41

A technical glitch thwarted the launch of Russian ballistic missiles in the Barents Sea on Tuesday during naval maneuvers overseen by President Vladimir Putin, who watched the massive exercise while decked out in naval officer's garb aboard a nuclear submarine.

The failed launch — part of an exercise described as the largest show of Russian military might in more than 20 years — marred an event apparently aimed at playing up Putin's image as a leader attempting to restore the country's military power and global clout.

Putin, who is expected to easily win the presidential election March 14, went to the Barents Sea on board the giant Arkhangelsk submarine to observe maneuvers set to involve numerous missile launches and flights of strategic bombers.

But the exercise hit a snag when a ballistic missile — a missile that is launched on a high-arch trajectory to hit a designated target — failed to blast off as scheduled from another submarine, the Novomoskovsk, a government official said on condition of anonymity. The official said the automatic safety system blocked the launch for unspecified reasons.

A Defense Ministry spokesman refused to comment. And Russian state-run television channels, which are lavishly covering the daily activities of Putin ahead of the election, did not report the failed launch.

But the event became a hot topic for Russian analysts and military figures.

"The failed launch has shown the gap between the real condition of the Russian military and the ambitions and muscle-flexing of the Russian leadership," said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office.

Retired Capt. Igor Kurdin, who in the early 1990s served as captain of the Novomoskovsk, said a technical problem or a crew mistake might have caused the failure.

"It's very annoying that it happened in front of the commander in chief," Kurdin, who did not witness the exercise, said. "I'm sure that the crew was getting ready for the launch very thoroughly in such circumstances."

There were differing accounts of what happened.

The Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies said the Novomoskovsk had been scheduled to launch two RSM-54 missiles in succession at a practice target on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East.

They quoted an unidentified Northern Fleet officer as saying a satellite signal blocked the missile launch from Novomoskovsk, a Delta IV-class submarine.

An online news outlet, gazeta.ru, said the missile suffered an engine failure and disintegrated immediately after its launch.

Despite earlier official statements about the scheduled launch, the Russian navy's chief, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, was shown later on NTV television insisting the navy had planned only imitation "electronic" launches, both of which he said were performed successfully.

Putin boarded the Arkhangelsk late Monday, putting on naval officer's garb complete with white scarf and gloves. He inspected the ship, discussed the exercise's plan with the top brass and dined with the crew.

"Putin likes playing these military games and donning uniforms," Volk said in a telephone interview. "It was part of the election campaign, an attempt to win the military and nationalist votes."

Putin visited another Northern Fleet nuclear submarine in April 2000, just about four months before the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea. That catastrophe killed all 118 men on board and cut into the Russian navy's prestige.

After returning to the Arctic base, Putin traveled to the northern launch pad of Plesetsk. There, he was expected to watch the launch of a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile, the Kommersant newspaper reported Tuesday.

The exercises, which began in late January, reached their peak Tuesday when 13 Northern Fleet ships and seven nuclear submarines, including the Arkhangelsk, went out to sea, practicing launches of air defense missiles, according to Channel One television. Several Tu-95 strategic bombers also participated, test-firing cruise missiles.

The Russian military has dismissed media reports that the exercises closely resemble Soviet-era simulations of an all-out nuclear war with the United States, saying the maneuvers are not directed against any specific country.

At the same time, the military said the exercises reflect Moscow's concerns about U.S. plans to develop new types of nuclear weapons. It has not said when the exercises will end.

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