Putin honors military in lavish ceremony

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin presented banners to the military in a lavish ceremony Thursday reviving Kremlin rituals of Czarist era, while two dozen retired generals and admirals accused him of ruining the military and betraying Russia to the West.

"Military banners have always been sacred for every Russian soldier. They embody the heroic pages of Russia's legendary military history," Putin said before giving banners to commanders as ranks of soldiers in parade uniform snapped to attention under a heavy snowfall on a Kremlin square. The ceremony was staged in preparation for Saturday's Defender of the Fatherland Day, a holiday established in Soviet times to commemorate a 1918 clash with German troops that is considered the birthday of the Red Army. But the towering, brightly colored banners -- some bearing the traditional two-headed eagle -- evoked the days of the Russian empire.

Putin owes his March 2000 election victory to his tough handling of the war in Chechnya and his promises to restore Russia's economic and military might.

Opinion polls indicate he still enjoys the support of about 70 percent of Russians, although the war has dragged into its third year with no end in sight.

As part of his efforts to modernize Russia, Putin has pushed for a military reform to trim the bloated and underfunded armed forces, meeting stiff resistance from the top military brass.

Putin's endorsement of the U.S. military presence in ex-Soviet Central Asian republics for the war in Afghanistan, his calm response to the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and his push for closer ties with NATO have stunned the military, which was trained to view the United States as the main enemy.