MOSCOW – For the first time in post-Soviet Russia, tanks and nuclear missile launchers are to rumble across Red Square on Friday, in a seemingly fearsome parade of military might.
The message to the world, two days after Dmitry Medvedev succeeds Vladimir Putin as president, should be clear: Russia is again a major military power.
"This isn't saber-rattling," Putin insisted Monday. "We are not threatening anyone."
And indeed, for all the investment in the military — an eightfold increase to an annual $40 billion during Putin's eight years in office — experts say it still has a long way to go to restore its Soviet-era might.
"Our armed forces are merely a bad copy of the Soviet army," said retired Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, a former arms control expert with the Russian Defense Ministry.
The annual Victory Day parade that marks Nazi Germany's defeat may look impressive, but some Russian commentators think much of the military spending has been squandered through corruption, cronyism and mismanagement.
Although in better shape than in the years immediately after the Soviet Union dissolved, the military remains an example of Russia's inability to use its eight-year oil bonanza to overhaul decrepit infrastructure and institutions.
The Soviet Union was bankrupted two decades ago by centralized planning and state dominance of the economy. After the sale of public assets in the 1990s, the state under Putin has expanded its role, and plans to create huge new government-owned military and technological conglomerates.
But the army, the pension system, public health, secondary education and the road system have all eroded on Putin's watch, former government ministers Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov wrote in a recent report, "Putin: The Bottom Line."
The main cause, they charge, is "Russia's dive into an unprecedented mire of corruption" that flows throughout the government.
INDEM, a Moscow-based research foundation, has reported that the volume of corrupt business conducted in Russia rose from $36 billion in 2001 to around $319 billion in 2005, its latest published data.
The military budget accounts for around 4.6 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, roughly on a par with China and the U.S.
But the generals don't let cash reach the grass roots where it's most needed, says security analyst Andrei Soldatov, and this "is leaving Russia's rapid-reaction armed forces in particularly bad shape."
The military's problems may be one reason why Medvedev repeatedly sounds the alarm about corruption, calling it "the gravest disease which has struck our society."
Putin's Kremlin has poured $150 billion into its armed services, yet those services remain saddled with old weaponry and facilities.
As part of an effort to reclaim Russia's previous status as a great military power, Putin has resumed long-range bomber patrols, boasted of developing a new strategic missile and threatened to deploy missiles closer to the heart of Europe.
But only a handful of new combat jets and several dozen tanks have been added in recent years. Soviet submarines still frequently need repair and rarely leave their bases.
A new nuclear sub, the Yury Dolgoruky, cannot be deployed because the Bulava ballistic missile it was supposed to carry has failed tests. When the vessel eventually sails, it will likely only make training cruises, according to a report by the Federation of American Scientists.
"Russia no longer maintains a continuous sea-based deterrent patrol posture like that of the United States, Britain and France, but instead has shifted to a new posture where it occasionally deploys a submarine for training purposes," the report said.
Military service is mandatory, but conditions are brutal and less than 10 percent of males end up in uniform, according to a 2007 study for the Swedish Research Institute of National Defense.
Russia's declining population has also left it with a shrinking pool of draftees. According to population expert Murray Feshbach at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, young men being inducted into the military today are neither as healthy nor as educated as they were in the Soviet times.
Military communications also lag. The introduction of Russia's answer to America's GPS satellite navigation system was postponed this year due to equipment shortages. Basics like night-vision goggles, portable radios and satellite phones are scarce.
The bottom line is that "the Russian military forces are in a bad state, and the situation is getting worse," said Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Institute of Military and Political Analysis.
So Russia increasingly relies on its nuclear missiles for defense. The weaker its army, the quicker it might resort to atomic weapons in a crisis, some analysts fear.
"It's a very destabilizing concept," said Alexander Pikayev, head of military policy research at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
Russians, meanwhile, worry that with the Soviet-era missile arsenal aging, Moscow will find it harder to maintain nuclear parity with the U.S.
Still, things are better than in the 1990s. Jets and navy ships are no longer idled for lack of fuel. Wage hikes and better training have made troops more combat-ready.
The return of heavy weapons to the annual celebration is "a demonstration of our growing defense capabilities," Putin said in remarks broadcast on state television Monday. "We are able to defend our people, our citizens, our state, our riches — of which there is quite a lot."
But Putin, who is staying on as prime minister, and President-elect Medvedev, face formidable challenges if they want to do more than parade military hardware in Red Square, and turn Russia's armed services into a modern fighting force.
Unlike 10 years ago, Russia today has the means to pursue these goals. All it needs now is the political will. Pikayev said Friday's parade shows it now has that will.
"It demonstrates that Russia has risen from its knees and is prepared to do everything to make its concerns heard," he said.