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Putin campaigns on Russian military buildup

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, visits an aircraft production workshop with Mikhail Pogosyan, president of United Aircraft Corp., in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia's Far East, on Feb. 20, 2012.

Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool/Reuters/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool/Reuters

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin inspected one of Russia's new stealth fighter jets on Monday and said Russia needs a stronger military to protect it against foreign attempts to stoke conflict around its borders.

Less than two weeks before a March 4 presidential election in which he hopes for a resounding win, Mr. Putin visited Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a snow-swept city in Russia's Far East where military and civilian plane maker Sukhoi is a big employer.

He prefaced his trip with a newspaper article intended to burnish his image as a strong leader, saying Russia would spend 23-trillion rubles ($768-billion) over a decade to modernize the former Cold War superpower's armed forces.

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"New regional and local wars are being sparked before our very eyes," Mr. Putin wrote in the article published on the front page of Russia's official gazette, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"There are attempts to provoke such conflicts in the immediate vicinity of the borders of Russia and our allies," he added in the article.

Mr. Putin, who is expected to win the election, gave no details of specific threats, but said Russia needed to develop weapons that were better than those of any potential enemy and called for making Russia's armed forces more professional and versatile.

Russia has criticized the NATO mission in Libya, saying it overstepped the mandate it was given by the United Nations Security Council and helped rebels oust Colonel Moammar Gadhafi last year, and it has stood behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one of Moscow's few allies in the Middle East.

In the latest of his articles published on the key policies of his presidential campaign, Mr. Putin made no specific mention of Libya or Syria. But he wrote that recent events showed the diminished stature of international law.

Russia, he said, must rely on a powerful military to make sure its position is understood. "Under these conditions Russia cannot depend solely on diplomatic or economic methods of resolving conflict," he wrote. "Before us stands the mission of developing our military potential in the framework of a strategy of containment and remaining sufficiently armed."

Russia's once-mighty armed forces underwent a decade of spending cuts after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, although Mr. Putin tried to slow the decline when he served as president from 2000 to 2008. The military now has about one million personnel.

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With his calls to increase Russia's might and spend state cash to improve military technology, he can count on strong support from the defence industry.

Dressed in a black coat on a visit that mixed elements of governance and campaigning, Mr. Putin looked down into the cockpit of a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter. He also examined a T-50, which Russia designed to rival the U.S. F-22 stealth fighter.

Mr. Putin, 59, has presented himself as the guarantor of stability and accused foreign powers of helping the organizers of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule. But many are concerned with rampant corruption and political stagnation, and he suggested one approach is to bring in the private sector to help boost competition in the defence industry.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, a rare meeting between Russia's president and opposition leaders produced talk of political reform on Monday, but no sign of concessions strong enough to halt protests posing a challenge to Mr. Putin's ambition to return to the Kremlin.

President Dmitry Medvedev hosted protest organizers and leaders of unregistered parties at his residence outside Moscow in the first known direct high-level contact between the opposition and the Kremlin since the protests began in December.

"Our political system is far from ideal, and the majority of those present here criticize it, sometimes quite harshly," Mr. Medvedev said in televized comments at the meeting.

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"You know that for the last four years I have been changing certain parts of our political system," he added. "At the moment, in my view, the time has come to do this more actively."

Mr. Medvedev said he welcomed suggestions on how electoral reform legislation he has submitted to parliament since the protests began, including easier registration for parties and a return to elections of regional leaders, could be improved.

The meeting signalled an awareness of the challenge that Mr. Putin faces from the protests that have erupted three times since a Dec. 4 parliamentary election, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to vent anger over suspected fraud in his party's favour.

But no concrete plans for that or any other political reform beyond the changes already promised emerged from the meeting. Mr. Putin has ignored most of the protesters' demands – including a rerun of the parliamentary election – and mocked them by likening the dissenters to apes and comparing the white ribbons worn by them to condoms.

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