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.
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.
Both sides currently deploy between 6,000 and 7,000 warheads each, on land-based missiles, bombers, and submarines. That's down from around 11,000 each a decade ago.
The debate over how to reform Russia's armed forces has been raging for years. But the need for decisions became critical after the Kursk, an ultra-modern nuclear attack submarine designed in Soviet times to attack American aircraft carriers, sank during Arctic war games three months ago. Though the cause of the explosions that destroyed the Kursk is still unknown, experts agree that the post-Soviet malaise of underfunding, inadequate training, and equipment shortages almost certainly played a role.
"It has become clear to our leaders that we can no longer pretend to fulfill the Soviet Union's global mission," says military journalist Alexander Goltz. "Those superpower symbols are very hungry, and they swallow up all the resources that could be used to create a modern military machine, one that would be more appropriate to Russia's real security needs and limited means."
Russia's annual defense budget is around $5 billion, compared with almost $300 billion for the US.
In addition to silencing military opposition to reform, Putin has apparently won the support of Russia's powerful Communists, who had blocked almost all reform of the military under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
"We opposed Yeltsin-style military reforms because they played into the hands of the United States, by agreeing to cut down our best and most powerful weapons," says Georgy Krasheninnikov, the Communist Party's parliamentary military expert. "But Putin is taking a rational approach. He wants to destroy old weapons but also build smaller numbers of powerful new ones. Everyone knows Russia can't be like the Soviet Union any more. We will support Putin's efforts if they make Russia a strong, modern power that's capable of deterring potential enemies."
The main sticking point is an on-again, off-again American plan to build a national missile-defense network that could shoot down attacking rockets in flight. Moscow says the scheme would undermine three decades of arms control and force Russia to respond by building its own anti-missile system or deploying sufficient numbers of new offensive weapons to overwhelm the American defense shield.
In fact, Russia simply cannot afford either alternative. "If we cannot bring the Americans around to joint action, Russia will probably have to disarm unilaterally," says Alexander Pikayev, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "The level of 1,500 warheads is about the maximum amount Russia could afford to sustain."
Clinton has left any decision on the nuclear missile defense shield to his successor.
The Kremlin is already signaling the next president, whoever he turns out to be, inviting him to join a politically popular common disarmament effort rather than risk his tenuous mandate in a long, acrimonious dispute with Moscow over who killed arms control.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society