Putin tries big shift in military strategy

Russian president this week toppled Army old guard. Defense minister may be next to go.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken his first whack at reforming his nation's formidable military establishment.

On July 31, Mr. Putin either fired or forced the retirements of 10 top Russian military officers. Analysts say many of those Putin targeted were allies of Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who may be the next to go because of his unusually public battle against a plan to slash - by as much as 80 percent - Russia's strategic rocket forces, backbone of the former Soviet nuclear deterrent.

The purge, analysts say, suggests that Putin is tilting toward a radical plan by Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin to sacrifice the former Soviet Union's nuclear superpower status and refocus resources on building a leaner, more conventional military machine.

It has been apparent for about a decade that Russia cannot afford to Russia's dilemma: conventional or nuclear arms

maintain the USSR's powerful conventional forces as well as its superpower-sized nuclear arsenal. A 1997 Kremlin study warned that the crisis of Russia's military was dire, and urged at least 3.5 percent of gross domestic product be spent annually just to avert a collapse.

Despite that, defense budgets over the past three years have barely averaged 2 percent of GDP, and Putin has hinted they may have to be trimmed further in the interests of general economic reform.

"Our military faces a systemic crisis, which must be solved by radical measures," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent analyst. "As the choice looks now, we will lose our parity with the US or we are going to lose the war in Chechnya. More likely, we'll lose both."

Last month, after Mr. Sergeyev slammed the Kvashnin scheme as "criminal insanity" at an open military event, Putin scolded his generals for quarreling in public and promised to settle the dispute.

A meeting of the Kremlin's powerful Security Council is slated for Aug. 11 to discuss the issue. Although it may be postponed, experts say Putin cannot long delay a decision on how to define Russia's long-term military priorities.

"It really looks like Sergeyev's days are numbered," says Viktor Boronets, a former Defense Ministry official who currently works as an independent analyst in Moscow. "His idea that we can maintain strategic parity with the US no longer seems practical, and our new president seems like a man who enjoys making hard choices." Sergeyev, a former commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, has spent most of the military's free funds to acquire about 20 new Topol-M intercontinental missiles each year since he became defense minister in 1997. The official military doctrine, prepared under his direction and adopted by Putin earlier this year, proclaims nuclear weapons to be Russia's first line of defense against any outside aggression.

But the 10-month-old war against rebel Chechnya has exposed the Russian military's potentially fatal inability to fight effectively on a conventional battlefield. Experts say that Moscow's troops, struggling to contain a few thousand mobile guerrillas, lack night-fighting equipment, all-weather air support, and even such mundane supplies as steel helmets and bulletproof vests.

"The Russian Army is so catastrophically short of conventional weapons that the combined resources of all the country's military departments and naval fleets were needed just to put together the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya," says Viktor Mukhin, defense analyst with the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Gen. Kvashnin's plan calls for trimming Russia's present force of 780 heavy land-based intercontinental missiles by at least 400, much deeper than the cuts suggested under the as-yet-unsigned START-3 nuclear arms-control treaty between Moscow and Washington. The scheme also calls for abolishing the Strategic Rocket Forces as a separate service, reducing it from 22 divisions to two, and folding it into the Air Force. The money saved would go to procure new conventional arms, improve military salaries, and beef up weapons research and development.

Experts say Mr. Sergeyev is strongly supported in some official quarters, particularly the influential Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many policymakers fear massive, unilateral cuts in strategic arms would lead to a disastrous loss of Russian prestige on the global stage. "If Russia were to simply withdraw from its position of nuclear equality with the US, it would fundamentally alter the global security landscape we have known for more than half a century," says Nikolai Zyubov, a former Soviet diplomat and security analyst. "We would become a second-tier power, like France, or Britain."

But, outside of the Rocket Forces, most in the military appear to back General Kvashnin. "The officers who have to actually fight in Chechnya, or do peacekeeping duties in the former Yugoslavia, are sick and tired of going without modern equipment, decent pay, and even sometimes elementary supplies," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "They don't see why the rocket forces, whose purpose is not to fight at all, should be so privileged and absorb all our scarce funds."

Putin has hinted at compromise, but analysts say he is leaning toward the Kvashnin plan. "The president has made it clear that the real threats on our own soil and from terrorists in neighboring states have to be dealt with," says Mr. Boronets. "Resources will have to be redistributed for the sake of security. Nuclear weapons just can't be sacrosanct anymore."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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