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Russia's "Reset": A Military Buildup

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From the looks of it, the Kremlin hasn't bought into the whole "reset but- ton" gimmick the White House has put forward as a framework for the Obama administration's new Russia policy.

Despite the olive branch offered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at their first meeting in Geneva two weeks ago, Russia has its eyes on matters other than better relations with the United States.

And the Russians clearly don't care who's in power here.

For starters, this week Russia heralded a military buildup with President Dmitry Medvedev calling for "comprehensive rearmament" of the once-mighty Russian armed forces.

In televised remarks, Medvedev proclaimed the "most important task is to re-equip the [Russian] armed forces with the newest weapons systems." The modernization is underway, he noted and will pick up pace, despite the challenges to the country's coffers from falling oil and gas prices and other economic woes.

Russia's defense budget could jump 30 percent this year, boosting Moscow's military might and preserving one of Russia's most-prized business endeavors its arms-export industry, which services the likes of China, Iran, Syria and Venezuela. (Moscow appears to have admitted for the first time yesterday that it has signed a large contract to deliver advanced surface-to-air missiles to Iran.)

Some say the defense budget bump is a result of the shortcomings Russian forces experienced last year when they invaded Georgia. But the Russian defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, reportedly said this week that the buildup is needed to thwart a possible US/NATO effort to grab the region's natural resources.

There's no such threat, of course but the Kremlin sees playing the nationalist card as a useful way to distract the public from those aforementioned economic woes.

Russia is also pumping itself up in an effort to quash the US missile-defense system (intended to guard against Iranian launches) proposed for Eastern Europe and to deter possible NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia.

It's also looking to project its power far from its neighborhood. A top Russian Air Force general this week claimed that Venezuela could host Russian long-range bombers, based on an offer from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (He also mentioned Cuba as a possible base.)

There's precedent: A pair of Russian Tu-160 "Blackjack" strategic bombers visited Venezuela last fall, conducting patrols over the Caribbean for a spell before returning home to Mother Russia. The Blackjacks were later joined by a Russian flotilla, doing a little muscle-flexing in joint operations with the Venezuelan navy perhaps in a tit-for-tat for US Navy ships' operations in the Black Sea during last year's Georgia crisis.

Not surprisingly, both Moscow and Caracas have downplayed the general's comments, characterizing his suggestion as a mere hypothetical which it is, of course, until it happens.

The Kremlin clearly hasn't hit that reset button it's sticking to the same course it's charted for years: that is, rebuilding and reasserting Russian power by chipping away at US influence and position around the world, using ties with "unfriendlies" (such as Iran) if needed to check Washington.

Of course, Moscow could just be gathering bargaining chips in advance of the first meeting between Presidents Medvedev and Obama next month at the G-20 in London. But the Kremlin's notion of "reboot" isn't the same as the White House's: For Moscow, a restart in relations means a significant retreat in Washington's interests in Europe and elsewhere in the face of a resurgent Russia.

Editors' Note: This piece originally appeared in the New York Post.

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