- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2000

Russia's latest nuclear submarine disaster provides ammunition to both factions in a raging debate in Moscow over the future of the country's once-proud military machine.
Even as rescue crews race to save more than 100 Russian submariners trapped at the bottom of the Barents Sea, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to broker a deal in the bureaucratic feud between those favoring Russia's heavy reliance on nuclear arms and those who say the country must devote more scarce rubles to the country's conventional forces.
Mr. Putin chaired a four-hour Security Council meeting Friday, hearing arguments from Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, the leading supporter of a strong and independent nuclear force, and Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin, who wants to boost conventional defense spending and fold the nuclear forces into a single military command structure.
"My suspicion is that the submarine disaster feeds into Kvashnin's arguments," said David Johnson, a Russian military expert at the Washington-based Center for Defense Intelligence.
"This would be a very expensive loss if the submarine can't be salvaged," Mr. Johnson said. "It certainly complicates the argument that the nuclear force is such a wonderful centerpiece of Russian security."
Backers of an emphasis on conventional military power point to the immense difficulties the Russian army and security forces have had in subduing a few thousand guerrillas in the brutal war in Chechnya.
Russian troops fighting in the breakaway republic are said to lack night-fighting equipment, basic air support, even bulletproof vests, because of past defense cuts.
About 70 percent of Russia's defense procurement budget goes to support the long-range nuclear force.
The Russian navy has not been spared the severe cuts that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many warships do not receive the regular servicing needed to keep them seaworthy, according to naval officers and veterans.
But Bill Hoehn, director of the Washington office of the Russian-American Security Advisory Council, said the incident actually could strengthen the nuclear faction, as more details of the sub's plight emerge.
"If it comes to light that the sub had trouble because of poor maintenance or a lack of resources, you can make the argument that the nuclear forces need more budget support, not less," Mr. Hoehn said.
Mr. Sergeyev's supporters, who remain powerfully positioned throughout the Russian government, also argue that the country's land- and sea-based nuclear forces even in their deteriorating state give Moscow a seat at the table and strong diplomatic leverage when the world's leading powers convene.
Russia has complicated U.S. national missile defense efforts and scored points in Europe and Asia by balking at changes to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, they note.
Speculation also surfaced yesterday that the crippled Russian submarine, an Oscar-2 class nuclear-powered "aircraft-carrier buster," sank after colliding with a foreign submarine. NATO forces were in the region observing a major Russian naval exercise.
That NATO countries put so much time and effort into observing the exercise shows the impact even a diminished nuclear force can have.
So far, however, Mr. Putin appears to be siding with Mr. Kvashnin and those backing a more robust conventional force.
Late last month, some 10 senior military officers linked to Mr. Sergeyev were fired or abruptly retired. The purge followed a public airing of the Sergeyev-Kvashnin debate, and was widely interpreted as an effort by Mr. Putin to cut the defense secretary down to size.
No official announcements were made after Friday's all-hands meeting on defense strategy.
But Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov talked afterward of a "balancing" of defense resources, strongly implying that the heavy tilt toward nuclear forces was being reviewed.
Analysts said yesterday that Mr. Putin must tread cautiously. He rode to power in large part on the early success of the Chechnya war and has consistently cultivated the military as he consolidated his position.
The stranded Kursk submarine is considered the flagship of the Russian Northern Fleet. Mr. Putin, dressed in a naval uniform, inspected the Northern Fleet in the first days after his election in March and even spent a night aboard a submarine.
"I think the debate is still very active, even if it's gone behind doors," said Oleg Bukharin, a Russian military expert at Princeton.

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