Putin Tries Big Shift in Military Strategy ; Russian President This Week Toppled Army Old Guard. Defense Minister May Be Next to Go

Article excerpt

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken his first whack at reforming his nation's formidable military establishment.

On July 31, Mr. Putin either fired or forced the retirements of 10 top Russian military officers. Analysts say many of those Putin targeted were allies of Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who may be the next to go because of his unusually public battle against a plan to slash - by as much as 80 percent - Russia's strategic rocket forces, backbone of the former Soviet nuclear deterrent.

The purge, analysts say, suggests that Putin is tilting toward a radical plan by Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin to sacrifice the former Soviet Union's nuclear superpower status and refocus resources on building a leaner, more conventional military machine.

It has been apparent for about a decade that Russia cannot afford to Russia's dilemma: conventional or nuclear arms

maintain the USSR's powerful conventional forces as well as its superpower-sized nuclear arsenal. A 1997 Kremlin study warned that the crisis of Russia's military was dire, and urged at least 3.5 percent of gross domestic product be spent annually just to avert a collapse.

Despite that, defense budgets over the past three years have barely averaged 2 percent of GDP, and Putin has hinted they may have to be trimmed further in the interests of general economic reform.

"Our military faces a systemic crisis, which must be solved by radical measures," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent analyst. "As the choice looks now, we will lose our parity with the US or we are going to lose the war in Chechnya. More likely, we'll lose both."

Last month, after Mr. Sergeyev slammed the Kvashnin scheme as "criminal insanity" at an open military event, Putin scolded his generals for quarreling in public and promised to settle the dispute.

A meeting of the Kremlin's powerful Security Council is slated for Aug. 11 to discuss the issue. Although it may be postponed, experts say Putin cannot long delay a decision on how to define Russia's long-term military priorities.

"It really looks like Sergeyev's days are numbered," says Viktor Boronets, a former Defense Ministry official who currently works as an independent analyst in Moscow. "His idea that we can maintain strategic parity with the US no longer seems practical, and our new president seems like a man who enjoys making hard choices." Sergeyev, a former commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, has spent most of the military's free funds to acquire about 20 new Topol-M intercontinental missiles each year since he became defense minister in 1997. The official military doctrine, prepared under his direction and adopted by Putin earlier this year, proclaims nuclear weapons to be Russia's first line of defense against any outside aggression. …