September 17, 2012 / 10:13 PM / 5 years ago

Putin watches war games, tells soldiers to boost Russian defence

* Putin says force used more in international affairs

* Wargames to last through Sunday

By Thomas Grove

MOSCOW, Sept 17 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin oversaw Russian military exercises on Monday and warned soldiers that more conflicts around the world meant they had to "keep their powder dry" and improve Russia's defences.

Speaking to soldiers at manoeuvres in the Caucasus Mountain region on the country's southern border, near where Russian troops invaded neighbouring Georgia in a five-day 2008 war, Putin said the use of military force was rising worldwide.

"You are all educated people, you see what is happening in the world. You see unfortunately that the use of force is increasing in international affairs," said Putin, wearing a beige jacket, flanked by Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and the Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov.

"That all speaks to the fact that we should keep our powder dry and that Russia's defences must improve," he said from a wooden podium, his eyes fixed on soldiers in uniform.

Putin, 59, has been the primary force behind plans to revamp Russia's fighting forces, injecting the defence budget with 23 trillion roubles ($751.97 billion) over the next decade, at a time when Western counterparts are tightening their belts.

Ahead of the presidential election earlier this year, Putin, 59, a former KGB spy, said enemies were trying to provoke conflicts around Russia's borders and the country's allies, arguing that the country needed better weapons.

Putin, who returned to the presidency in May after serving as prime minister for four years, has repeatedly criticised Western intervention in Libya last year and has stymied attempts to introduce harsher United Nations sanctions on embattled Syrian ally President Bashir al-Assad.

He has said that events connected to the Arab Spring uprisings have diminished the stature of international law, making Moscow more reliant on a strong army.

Monday was the first day of training exercises named Kavkaz 2012, the Russian word for the Caucasus Mountains.

The troubled region has emerged as a focus of hostilities, not only within Russia where insurgents wage near-daily violence to carve out an Islamist state, but also between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where border skirmishes sporadically occur.

FIREFIGHTS AND WAR GAMES

The firefights still flare nearly 20 years after a ceasefire stopped fighting between Azeri forces and ethnic Armenians over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory.

Putin handed out medals to soldiers and watched the exercises, which will run through Sunday and involve 8,000 security personnel using air defence, artillery and some of Russia's most powerful rockets.

The war games will use dozens of aircraft and nearly 50 helicopters, simulating invasion of Russian territory.

The pro-Western ex-Soviet republic of Georgia criticised the exercises, saying they could destabilise the region.

Russia sent troops into Georgia in 2008, routing the small South Caucasus country's military, after Georgia's U.S.-trained military attacked the pro-Russian rebel region of South Ossetia. The conflict also enveloped breakaway Abkhazia on the Black Sea.

Moscow recognised both regions as independent countries following the war. A handful of nations have followed Russia's lead, despite insistence from Tbilisi that the areas are part of its sovereign territory.

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