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Russia's disarmament gambit

Putin calls for bilateral reduction to 1,500 warheads by 2008 as part of military cost-cutting.

By Fred Weir Special to The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2000


With his country's back to the wall financially, President Vladimir Putin is moving to reduce and modernize Russia's costly Soviet-era military machine and proposing a radical bilateral reduction in strategic nuclear arsenals.

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Mr. Putin has launched a sweeping disarmament appeal that would reduce nuclear weapons on both sides to barely a quarter of their present numbers. The plan would have to be negotiated with the United States.

"This is not a propaganda gimmick," the independent Interfax news agency quotes an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying. "It is an absolutely clear and public signal given by Russia to the next US administration."

"We have proposed to the United States to aim toward cutting the nuclear warheads of both countries to 1,500, which is perfectly feasible by 2008," Putin said Monday. "But this is not the limit. We are ready in the future to look at further reductions."

Analysts say Putin will mention the idea to President Clinton at this week's meeting of the 21 member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, but that his real goal is to win headlines amid the confusion of the US presidential election. The Kremlin may be hoping the balloting imbroglio could weaken the next US leader, whoever he is, and leave him more dependent on the good will and initiative of established foreign leaders.

"Of course it's a propaganda ploy," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert. "But Putin obviously hopes he can capture the agenda, and make some gains that might not have been possible if the American succession were clearer."

After a decade of vacillation, cash-strapped Russia is lurching toward radical military reform. Analysts say the internal political struggles are over, and the Kremlin has won broad agreement on deep cuts in conventional and nuclear forces.

"There is no real opposition anymore to the need for major military restructuring," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "It's either that or imminent collapse."

Although awesome on paper, the Russian Army has for years failed to suppress a separatist rebellion in the southern province of Chechnya, due to lack of skilled manpower, inadequate equipment, and miserable morale. The country's Soviet-era nuclear deterrent is fast approaching the end of its operational life, and there is no money to build a new superpower-size arsenal.

Last week, Putin ordered the military to cut its ranks by 20 percent within five years. Of the 600,000 personnel to be retired, nearly a quarter-million would be officers - including 380 generals - and another 130,000 would come from the vast Defense Ministry bureaucracy.

Under the START II treaty, ratified by the Russian parliament earlier this year, both sides are obliged to cut their strategic forces to around 3,500 warheads. The two nuclear powers have also tentatively agreed to downsize further, to around 2,500 warheads each, under an as-yet unfinished START III agreement.