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Russia: Putin Talks Up Power Of Nuclear Arsenal

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia's Defense Ministry has issued a document reaffirming its right to undertake pre-emptive military strikes while warning NATO that the alliance's continued military posture could prompt Moscow to conduct what it called a "fundamental reassessment of Russia's military planning and arms procurement." At the same time, President Vladimir Putin, in a meeting with top military brass, emphasized the power of Russia's nuclear arsenal. Coming so soon after Putin's visit to the United States, the saber-rattling from Moscow took some observers by surprise. Should the U.S. and NATO be alarmed?

Prague, 3 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hawkish words emanated from Moscow yesterday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met top military leaders to review the state of the Russian armed forces.

Putin told the military brass that after years of cutbacks, the time for attrition had ended, with Russia's armed forces now numbering an optimal one million troops.

"Since 1992, the armed forces have been reduced by more than half. It was a truly difficult and painful process. Enough. The process, as a whole, is now complete," Putin said.

Putin outlined his vision for a strong, well-funded, flexible and combat-ready Russian military. Defense Minister Ivanov, meanwhile, told the assembly of military leaders that what he called "radical" military reforms were now successfully accomplished, meaning Russia could focus on projecting its power.

Ivanov, as he has on previous occasions, reiterated that Russia retains the right to launch pre-emptive strikes against potential enemies. Both men emphasized the importance of Russia's nuclear arsenal as a cornerstone of the country's defense, with Putin announcing plans to pull dozens of SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles out of storage.

"Russia retains a significant number -- I want to emphasize this -- a significant number of land-based strategic missiles. I am talking about our most menacing missiles, the [SS-19]. I am talking about very serious potential, about tens of rockets," Ivanov said.

Putin's statement was accompanied by a report from the Russian Defense Ministry, warning NATO that Moscow would be forced to re-evaluate its nuclear missile strategy if the alliance continued to maintain an "offensive doctrine."

The saber-rattling, coming just days after Putin's friendly summit meeting in the United States with President George W. Bush, appeared to strike a discordant note.

But Aleksandr Pikaev, an arms control expert at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) tells RFE/RL that the timing was not coincidental. On the international front, Pikaev says Moscow remains concerned about NATO's aims and U.S. military expansion toward Russia's borders. Turning up the volume could be one way to get some attention.

"We can explain the harsh tone very simply. Russia is concerned by a lot of things. NATO, which has announced it is battling international terrorism, has nonetheless expanded to Russia's borders. There is no evidence that NATO's doctrine is changing. In addition, it appears American forces are going to be moved from their German bases further east and all this causes great alarm among the Russian military and the president is forced to take those concerns into consideration," Pikaev said.

Pikaev adds that on a range of substantive issues currently under discussion with NATO, Moscow feels it is making little headway.

"There are major disagreements and during the sensitive talks and consultations that are now going on, the Russian side has not been able to advance its point of view with NATO that Russia needs security guarantees, that Russia would like the Baltic states to sign up to the Conventional Armed Forces Treaty in Europe, and that the issue of intellectual property rights for Soviet weapons that remain in the armies of Central and Eastern European countries that are entering NATO must be addressed. Russia has not been able to make progress on any of these issues and yesterday's statement by the Russian authorities reflects this dissatisfaction with the situation," Pikaev said.

On the domestic front, says Pikaev, Putin and the government -- in the runup to legislative elections in December and a presidential poll next March -- are eager for support from the military and the kind of talk demonstrated yesterday was meant to appeal to this important constituency.

"The ruling party needs the military's vote since its chances don't appear as rosy as some would like. Of course, when talking about the military's support, we're not just talking about a million soldiers but also their family members, members of other military formations, and those working in defense industries, who are not indifferent to the fate of the armed forces. We are talking about millions and millions of voters," Pikaev said.

Pikaev notes that Ivanov, in particular, was keen to let the military know that the government, after years of belt-tightening demands and sometimes neglect, was now looking to take better care of its forces in uniform.

"[Ivanov] wanted to say that reforms, in the way they were undertaken previously -- that is to say reforms that were underfinanced, when the armed forces were forced to worry about mere survival -- this way of doing reforms is over and better times are coming when the armed forces are going to be better financed. And indeed, the government's budget request for the military next year has been increased by 60,000 million rubles [$2 billion], which is a significant sum for the Russian budget," Pikaev said. "Now Ivanov is trying to convince his generals and officers that things will be much better, that we will be able to think not only about survival but also about new equipment purchases, about how to train our soldiers better, about new maneuvers, about new peacekeeping operations, and how life will slowly get back into its normal groove."

Ivanov's contention that "radical" military reforms have already been accomplished is more contentious, say experts, especially in view of the fact that according to the Russian Defense Ministry itself, the switchover to a fully professional military composed of contract soldiers is not due until 2010.

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