The nascent move toward a strategic accord in Moscow and Washington over offensive and defensive weapons faces perhaps its toughest scrutiny from a tough-minded constituency - the military.
Behind the attempts by US and Russian negotiators this week in Moscow to lay the groundwork for a package deal lies a brass-button reality: a cold-war mentality that still runs deep among the generals in both countries. Their views will help decide whether any pact linking a reduction in offensive warheads with a US plan to build a missile-defense shield ever gets initialed.
In Russia, the Soviet-schooled military leadership remains deeply skeptical of Mr. Putin's decision to even talk about missile defense, as well as the ongoing expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe.
In the US, one element of the Pentagon remains convinced that deep cuts in the two sides' nuclear arsenals could end up making the strategic balance more unstable, and thus more dangerous.
Complicating the motivations on both sides are efforts to restructure the two countries' militaries to reflect 21st century doctrines.
"Russia's security doctrines are evolving, but past priorities are still very strong held," says Sergei Kazyonnov, chief expert at the official Institute of National Security and Strategic Research. "Our military elite will not take kindly to being told by Washington how Russia should defend itself."
Wariness at Pentagon
In America's military, with its long tradition of bowing to civilian control, positions are more nuanced. The view of top military commanders is not outright opposition, but pointed skepticism, toward a Bush-Putin arms deal.
The president would ultimately like to reduce the number of American and Russian warheads substantially below the 2,000 to 2,500 that President Clinton and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin sought to establish four years ago as a goal.
Many Pentagon officials would welcome having money shifted from the nuclear arsenal to other military needs. But Job 1, they say, is to be ready to accomplish objectives set by civilian leaders. At present, that means being ready to hit more than 2,000 targets in the former Soviet Union. And even if the benchmark is lowered, the question of adequate nuclear defenses remains.
Earlier this month, Adm. Richard Mies, head of the Strategic Command that controls nuclear weapons, warned Congress that more than the sheer number of warheads needs to be considered for US security.
In his prepared testimony, Admiral Mies quoted two former presidential advisers, whom he did not name, as saying:
"Given the clear risks and the elusive benefits inherent in additional deep cuts, the burden of proof should be on those who advocate such reductions to demonstrate exactly how and why such cuts would serve to enhance US security."
A lower number of warheads, Mies said, does not necessarily make the world safer. He pointed to a number of other factors as also key - including the ability to withstand a nuclear attack and strike back, and the ability to adapt deterrent forces to a rapidly changing future.
His testimony was perhaps the clearest statement yet of the Strategic Command's opposition to deep warhead cuts - a goal Bush raised in his election campaign last year and a key objective this week as his security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, sat down with counterparts in Moscow.
Sharply reducing warheads and missiles would free funds for other Bush defense priorities, from military readiness to his proposed antimissile defense system.
For that reason, "lurking below the surface [in the Pentagon] is a latent consensus among the military in favor of further offensive cuts," says Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon in Washington.
But, with its direct oversight of the nuclear arsenal, the Strategic Command's voice is felt much more strongly.
For now, that resistance puts the brakes on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to reconfigure the military.
"If the Bush administration wants to have a new framework, they have got to lower numbers" of warheads, says Joseph Cirincione, executive director of the nonproliferation project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The cold war is over," he adds. "But the cold war weapons and posture remain ... If Russia is not the enemy, why are our forces still configured as if they are?"
The Strategic Command is responsible for identifying targets in Russia, or anywhere else, for nuclear warheads. But those targets are set within broad parameters determined by civilian leaders - the president and Defense secretary.
What Mies is trying to do, says Heritage Foundation defense analyst Baker Spring in Washington, is to "make sure his command is capable of executing" current policy. That would seem to open up a solution, short of twisting arms: Civilian leaders could fundamentally change to overall guidance to the Strategic Command. A less-sweeping set of requirements for fending off Russia in case of nuclear war, they say, and a willingness to assume some risk, would mean the US would need fewer nuclear warheads.
And in Russia...
Experts say that Russia's Soviet-schooled military leadership may not be as ready for change as their young and pragmatic president.
"Our leading military officers, whose thinking is more traditional, tend to view NMD and NATO expansion as major threats which Russia cannot compromise with, but must struggle against," says Yuri Fyodorov, vice director of Pir, an independent political research center in Moscow. "They will not reconcile with this easily."
Russian defense policy has changed little over the past decade, largely because Mr. Yeltsin was unwilling to press painful downsizing and doctrinal changes on the Soviet-era armed forces.
After coming to power a year and a half ago, Putin pressured a reluctant Russian parliament to ratify long-stalled arms control treaties, announced sweeping military reforms, and hinted at key shifts in strategic thinking.
A resolution on national security adopted by the Kremlin last year upheld the traditional dominance of nuclear missile forces to deter an American attack, but introduced some new priorities. "Much more importance is now placed on fighting threats like international terrorism, domestic extremism, and cross-border narcotics trafficking," says Mr. Fyodorov.
Though some of Russia's immediate neighbors, such as the post-Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine, may worry that this spells more meddling by Moscow in their affairs, more distant countries are likely to be relieved that Russian power is apparently refocusing itself on regional concerns.
Putin has also begun purging upper military ranks in ways that suggest major policy shifts to come.
In March, he sacked Yeltsin's Defense Minister, Igor Sergeyev, and replaced him with close friend and former KGB officer Sergei Ivanov. "Sergeyev was a former commander of Russian strategic missile forces, and when he was fired, the status of this branch was lowered," says Alexander Savelyev, a military expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "One of the signals was that Russia will now concentrate on building up its conventional forces, and the strategic nuclear component will no longer be dominant." Earlier this month, Putin removed Gen. Leonid Ivashov, known for his hawkish stands on NATO and NMD, from his job as head of the Defense Ministry's international department. Also sacked was General Staff spokesman Valery Manilov, a close ally of Sergeyev.
Still, experts caution that the Kremlin may not have made up its mind about which strategic direction to take. Simultaneous with the visible thawing toward the West, Putin is moving to cement military cooperation with China.
A 20-year Treaty of Friendship signed last week in Moscow between the two countries contains some "alliance-type obligations," according to Russian media.
These include a commitment by both not to enter into any agreement that would jeopardize "the national security and territorial integrity" of the other, and an agreement to immediately consult on a joint response to any threat of aggression against either country. "It is not at all clear what Russia's position is going to be, because the geopolitical situation is still in flux," says Fyodorov.
But, for now at least, Putin should be able to handle any resistance thrown up by the military bureaucracy. "Putin is still very popular, the economy is healthy, and it is a Russian tradition to obey the boss," says Mr. Kazyonnov. "The president is in a very strong position to pursue his policies - whatever they are."
Moreover, in a press conference last week, Putin insisted that Russia does not consider NATO to be an enemy - a declaration that must have shocked his elderly corps of generals, who have spent their lives preparing for an attack from that very quarter.
There should be "a single defense space in Europe," Putin argued, which could be achieved by Russia joining NATO, by the alliance disbanding unilaterally, or with the creation of a whole new security bloc with Russia at its heart.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor