Russia Bites a Bullet

The world's biggest country, which once had 2.5 million troops on its soil, has finally realized that a world-class pauper can hardly afford a world-class military.

An impoverished Russia now plans to reduce its armed forces - including domestic security and intelligence forces - by a further 30 percent to 850,000 over three years.

That would bring the number of its forces closer to Turkey's and far below the 1.4 million troop strength of the United States.

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It cuts Russia's Army down to a regional land power whose main concern is now Islamic uprisings to the south. Such a move may also help Europe and China breathe a bit easier.

This decision by President Vladimir Putin to downsize the nation's forces was made even before the tragic loss of 118 men aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk on Aug. 12. But it leaked out only last week.

The Kursk disaster added some political push for a leaner military that will help Russia live within its means. Mr. Putin reportedly said he wants a better-equipped Army that is "technically perfect."

His predecessor, the often ineffective Boris Yeltsin, failed in many of his attempts at military reform, although he did reduce the number of troops by attrition and early retirement.

In just five months, Putin has shown he can make bold and realistic decisions to help Russia regain its footing.

His 15-year military plan, for instance, would put more money into the Army and less into maintaining a decaying nuclear arsenal. He would let the number of warheads shrink to 1,500, less than half the number permitted under the 1993 START II treaty. And Russia has allowed the US to help clean up the nuclear waste of old submarines.

It was Russia's defeat in its 1994-96 war with the breakaway republic of Chechnya that revealed the decrepit state of its military. Even after that war resumed last year, the Russian Army still doesn't know how to end the brutal conflict.

Russia's military spending has become a fraction of the US military budget. But given the risk of political instability or nuclear proliferation, Russia needs military reform. Putin has wisely decided to shift resources over to rebuilding the economy and tackling the domestic threats to the nation, such as corruption.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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