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Russia's Nuclear Missile Chief Fired

General Nikolai Solovtsov (right) with President Dmitry Medvedev in May 2008
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- The veteran commander of Russia's strategic nuclear missile forces, Nikolai Solovtsov, has been fired, the latest in a spate of departures among the military top brass.

A short Kremlin statement said President Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree appointing Lieutenant General Andrei Shvaychenko, 56, as the new commander.

"Under the same decree, General Solovtsov Nikolai Yegenyevich was relieved from the duties of commander of the Strategic Missile Forces and dismissed from military service," it said.

It gave no reason for dismissing Solovtsov and replacing him with Shvaychenko, his first deputy.

Russian media earlier said Solovtsov, who had headed the force since 2001, was asked for his resignation despite the fact Medvedev had allowed him to continue serving after reaching the retirement age of 60 in February.

His departure follows a series of failed test-launches of Bulava, a new-generation strategic missile designed for nuclear submarines. Two weeks ago, the chief designer of Bulava quit.

Solovtsov's firing also coincided with Russia's widespread reform of its military, which has been opposed by many senior ranking officers.

Medvedev has backed a plan by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to trim Russia's 1.2 million-strong armed forces and change its structure to make it more mobile and effective.

The president says reform was inevitable after Russia's military operation in Georgia last year highlighted gaps in troop training and equipment, as well as problems in the organization of the armed forces.

Several top opponents of the military reform, who say it could ruin the armed forces, have already lost their jobs. The latest firing was in April, when Medvedev dismissed the head of Russia's powerful military intelligence.

Despite a considerable decline in military might since the breakup of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Russia and the United States still rank as the world's biggest nuclear powers.

Moscow and Washington are now in talks on a new treaty that intends to curb the number of strategic warheads in their arsenals, which account for over 95 percent of the world's total nuclear weapon stockpiles.