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
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
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
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