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Saturday, 12 August, 2000, 06:43 GMT 07:43 UK
Analysis: Russia's rocket row
Russian tank soldier sleeps in a hammock
Russian soldiers have often been ill-equipped to face Chechen rebels
President Putin has given the go-ahead for major military reform in what is being seen as a bid to assert his authority over the armed forces. But Russia is facing a financial crisis, as BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey explains.

The acrimony between Russia's top generals is an unfortunate but inevitable result of the shortage of money in the country's military budget.

The former superpower simply cannot afford to maintain a powerful nuclear arsenal and to modernise its infantry to fight effectively in local conflicts.

Today in Chechnya, federal troops often go into battle without body armour and wearing bandanas instead of steel helmets

Defence analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer
For Moscow, even a decision to divide expenditure equally between both priorities would involve painful compromises.

On the one hand, its nuclear arsenal is the backbone of its fast-declining military might, and the guarantee of its status as a world power.

On the other, the threat Russia faces from local conflicts is obvious. Thousands of its troops have died in the North Caucasus since 1994 - and according to Russian analysts many of these deaths could have been avoided if the army had been better equipped.

Nuclear bias

Russia's Defence Minister since 1997, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, is a former commander of the country's Strategic Missile Forces - and it is not surprising that he has spent the lion's share of Russia's limited procurement budget replacing ageing missiles with modern ones.

Mushroom cloud
Russia's nuclear arsenal is the backbone of its military might
But this was not simply a case of loyalty to his own service.

Russia's military doctrine has been steadily revised in recent years to put greater emphasis on nuclear deterrence, in recognition of the fact that the rest of the once-powerful Soviet armed forces have been wasting away.

If truth be told, the Strategic Missile Forces have been wasting away too - and the country's present arsenal of 6,000 warheads will continue to shrink rapidly regardless of any further disarmament treaties, such as the proposed Start-3 pact, that may one day be agreed with the United States.

Eyeless in Chechnya

But Marshal Sergeyev's new purchases mean that they now have at least some reliable, modern hardware.

Russian soldiers fire a mortar
Russian soldiers fire a mortar near the Chechen village of Samashki
Generals fighting the war in Chechnya, however, have a different perspective of spending priorities.

The respected Russian defence analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, says the army entered the latest war in Chechnya without helicopters capable of flying at night or in fog, and without modern body armour or communication equipment.

"Today in Chechnya, federal troops often go into battle without body armour and wearing bandanas instead of steel helmets," he says.

"This is not only because they are undisciplined, but because out-of-date army flak jackets and steel helmets only impede soldier's movements, while offering almost no protection."

Upper Volta with rockets

In March, he says, a company of almost 100 paratroopers was wiped out in the Chechen mountains, because fog made air support impossible.

In its dying days the Soviet Union was described as "Upper Volta with rockets", and the phrase is partially true of Russia today.

The biggest difference is that Russia's periphery is far more unstable than the Soviet Union's ever was.

The current debate over spending priorities illustrates once again how tough it is to be a dirt-poor former superpower threatened by further disintegration.

Russia may have made many bad choices over the last few years, but choices like this one are hard to make.

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See also:

14 Jul 00 | Europe
Russian dispute over military
14 Jan 00 | Europe
Russia lowers nuclear threshold
11 Jan 00 | Europe
Putin: Russia must be great again
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