- MOSCOW (AP) - At the height of Russia's financial meltdown, the minister
named to save the economy outlined an overriding priority: build a new
generation of nuclear missiles.
- The warning from First Deputy Prime Minister
Yuri Maslyukov that Russia could lose its nuclear capability produced rare
unanimity among the country's bitterly divided political factions. Communists,
nationalists and liberals alike agree that Russia must stake everything
on its nuclear forces if it wants any claim to be a world power and have
any kind of credible military.
- Yet, the huge arsenal of rockets, planes
and submarines that once terrified the world is falling apart and there
is no money to maintain it or build large numbers of replacements.
- ``The only thing for which Russia is
respected in the world and which makes us worthy partners ... is our strategic
rocket forces,'' said Alexander Lebed, a former general and a leading presidential
- Russia's nuclear arsenal of 6,000 warheads
could soon shrink to just a few hundred, analysts say. Early-warning radar
and satellites vital to protect against pre-emptive attacks and prevent
premature missile launchings are also falling apart, they add.
- ``By the year 2010, the number of Russia's
nuclear warheads will fall 10-fold to 600 to 800,'' predicted Alexander
Pikayev, a top expert in arms control with Moscow's branch of the Carnegie
Endowment for Peace.
- Russia could be eclipsed as a nuclear
power by China, which once lagged far behind Moscow, he said.
- Analysts paint a gloomy picture of Russia's
crumbling nuclear triad:
- - The navy's nuclear missile submarines
are in the worst state. During the Soviet-era, dozens of submarines were
on patrol, lurking under the waves with batteries of nuclear missiles ready
for instant firing. Scores of submarines have been decommissioned and no
more than three are thought to be on patrol at any one time now. Even the
working boats rarely leave harbor.
- And if a nuclear war starts, the submarines
wouldn't be able to sail out immediately because they don't have food supplies
- - The air force's mainstay Bear bombers
are more than 40 years old. Pilots only get a few hours flying time each
year, far below the level at which they can operate effectively, analysts
said. Lebed said the air force has only 20 modern nuclear bombers.
- - The land-based rocket forces, always
the strongest part of the Soviet nuclear triad, are in better shape. But
many of the most powerful missiles are well past their operational lifetime,
- ``The strategic nuclear forces' command
systems are also expiring, and that may result in loss of control over
them,'' Lebed wrote in a Jan. 21 article in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
- It would cost $3 billion a year to maintain
existing missiles, according to Roman Popkovich, head of the defense committee
of the Duma, the lower chamber of parliament. Russia's full budget for
1999 is $25 billion, and officials concede much of the money exists only
- With the economy in a nose dive and conventional
forces collapsing, Russia's military has become increasingly dependent
on its still massive Soviet-era nuclear forces.
- Whatever money the government can scrape
together for the military is being funneled into nuclear forces, but analysts
say it's too little, too late.
- The navy designed a new nuclear missile
submarine - the Yuri Dolgoruky - but only one is under construction. ``It's
really difficult to say how many nuclear submarines Russia will have on
duty by 2010 - two, four, five or seven,'' said Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading
- The air force does not have any plans
for a new long-range nuclear bomber or cruise missiles, analysts said.
- The land forces alone have a new weapon
- the Topol-M - a single-warhead missile, 10 of which were deployed for
the first time in January.
- But even if Russia meets its goal of
building between 35 and 40 Topol-Ms a year, analysts say the nuclear forces
will still drop drastically. Some officials advocate building multi-warhead
missiles, but this would break the proposed START-2 agreement with the
- The Communist-dominated Duma repeatedly
has refused to ratify the treaty, which was approved by the U.S. Senate
in 1996 and would reduce each side's nuclear arsenals to between 3,000
and 3,500 warheads by 2007.
- Government officials say Moscow must
accept START-2 and seek a START-3 treaty to cut both sides to about 1,500
nuclear warheads as the only way to give Russia some kind of parity.
- Such drastic cuts are ``dozens of times
more important for our country than for the United States,'' said Popkovich,
warning that Russia cannot afford any kind of arms race with Washington.