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Russia: Top Brass Split Over Conventional, Nuclear Needs

Top military brass in Russia are split over whether to devote scarce resources to conventional or strategic forces. As RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports, President Vladimir Putin's hasty attempt to quell the feud has not solved the underlying problem.

Moscow, 19 July 2000 (RFE/RL ) -- Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin to his Black Sea resort in Sochi. There the men were supposed to mend their rift over the direction of Russian military policy.

The row erupted last week when Kvashnin submitted a plan on the future makeup of the military forces. The chief of staff proposed slashing the number of nuclear missiles and ending the strategic command's independent status as the cornerstone of Russian defense policy.

That plan did not sit well with Sergeyev, who headed the strategic forces from 1992 until his first appointment as defense minister in 1997. Sergeyev argued that the nuclear force is in better shape than other sectors of the Russian military and is an important symbol of Russian power. Downgrading it would underscore Russia's loss of superpower status.

Kvashnin's plan is drawn from lessons learned on the battlefield in Chechnya, where poor equipment has contributed to Russian casualties. As the risk of nuclear war is lower now, and START-3 talks are likely to further reduce both the U.S. and the Russian nuclear arsenals, Kvashnin reasons, strategic nuclear forces can be cut without risking security. He argues the money saved by downgrading the nuclear forces could be channeled to the conventional forces, which desperately need upgrading.

That plan was in line with proposals adopted under former president Boris Yeltsin, and appeared set to win Putin's approval. Alarmed, Sergeyev took the offensive, issuing accusations that stopped just short of calling Kvashnin a traitor. Sergeyev called the scheme "criminal stupidity and an attempt to harm Russia's national interests." The two men's longstanding personal animosity added ammunition to the feud.

After the Sochi meeting, Sergeyev cast himself as the victor. But political analysts doubt that the dispute was settled so easily.

The military's glaring shortcomings in Chechnya have added tension to an issue that goes beyond choosing between more rockets or more tanks. Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer says the problem is that Russia can no longer afford to act like a superpower -- it cannot maintain its nuclear capability, wage a ground war against partisans in Chechnya, and undertake a liberal reform of the army.

Felgenhauer says both men's arguments have merit. But he says Sergeyev's emphasis on nuclear capability has contributed to the dilapidated state of the army. "When he became defense minister," Felgenhauer says, "he purposefully spent almost all of the money allocated for new equipment on the acquisition of new intercontinental ballistic missiles."

The defense minister has tried to keep purchasing 20 to 30 ICBMs a year -- more than all other nuclear powers put together. Meanwhile the conventional forces have seen their equipment crumble. Therefore, according to Felgenhauer, Sergeyev is partly to blame for the death of Russian soldiers in Chechnya, who are sent to war with outdated weapons.

Most generals agree. Many of them are said to personally dislike Chief of Staff Kvashnin, who comes across as rather boorish compared with the refined Sergeyev. But on the military's needs, they tend to support Kvashnin.

As commander in chief, it is of course President Putin who will have the final word. But some commentators doubt he's well versed enough in military matters to make an informed decision.

One Russian newspaper even implied that Putin could be manipulated by military leaders and lose effective political control over the army.

The most likely outcome of the dispute is a compromise. Analyst Felgenhauer says the Kremlin is likely to agree to a little of everything. In his words: "They'll buy a few rockets, they'll buy some tanks, they'll fight a little in Chechnya, and make some liberal reforms. That is, they'll do half measures, with the result that reforms will fail, the war in Chechnya will be lost, and nuclear status will suffer."

With Duma elections scheduled for the fall, a third voice, that of Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin, is expected to chime in on the issue. He is charged with creating a budget surplus by 2001 -- an economic feat that would require drastic cuts in the military budget. That could render the choice between tanks and missiles moot for a military that can afford neither.