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Boris Yeltsin has always been unpredictable while abroad, and last Dec. 2 he popped another surprise. On a visit to Stockholm, he declared: "I am here making public for the first time that we, in a unilateral manner, are reducing by another third the number of nuclear warheads."
Yeltsin's press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said he was referring to a future START III arms control treaty with the United States. But later, back in Moscow, a senior Russian defense strategist shook his head at Yastrzhembsky's explanation.
"To tell you the truth, I was bewildered," he said. Yeltsin's comment captured perfectly what is happening to Russian strategic forces, he added.
The decline was set in motion by the START I treaty, now being implemented. Russia has made cuts mostly by eliminating missiles it inherited from Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Looming are deeper cuts in the forces now inside Russia, mandated by START II. But even more important than the treaties, the ebb of Russia's strategic forces is being driven by a simple fact: They are running out of steam, out of money, and out of time.
For example, in its 1989 report on Soviet military power, the Pentagon warned about the deployment of the Blackjack bomber, the Russian supersonic Tu-160. With low-mounted, swept-back wings and a long, pointed nose, the plane was the most powerful combat aircraft in the Soviet air force, and was deployed with nuclear-armed AS-15 cruise missiles. Although the Soviet Union had planned to build 100 Blackjacks, only 25 were deployed. They had many malfunctions, but the biggest problem came on the day the Soviet Union fell apart: Most of the Blackjacks were not in Russia.
Nineteen Blackjack bombers were parked in Ukraine, where they remain. Years of negotiation between Russia and Ukraine for repurchase of the bombers by Russia have gone nowhere. According to Jane's Intelligence Review, the planes have practically lost their combat value.
Russia has only six Blackjacks, built in 1991, currently deployed at the Engels air base in the Volga region, but a Russian military source said only four of them are combat-ready. There are a few more Blackjacks partially finished or being used as trainers. Russia also has a fleet of older Tu-95 Bear bombers.
Russia's submarine fleet is the least vulnerable leg of the strategic triad -- while the submarines are hidden under the ocean. But the navy is also in trouble. A.D. Baker III, editor of Combat Fleets of the World, said that at the present rate of decline, Russia's strategic-missile submarine fleet "will be virtually extinct within a decade." At the end of 1997, he said, for the first time since the 1930s, the Russian navy had fewer operational submarines of all types than did the U.S. Navy.
Of 62 strategic submarines deployed by the Soviet Union in 1990, the Russian navy currently has only 28, and by some recent reports, as few as 23 are operational. Most of the rest have been junked or are waiting to be.
At the peak of the Cold War tensions, 20 to 22 submarines were at sea. Today, there are usually two, and they do not go far.
One of the fearsome symbols of Soviet power was the Typhoon, the largest submarine ever built -- each accommodating 20 missiles with 10 warheads apiece. The six Typhoons completed between 1980 and 1989 could, in the event of a nuclear attack, send 1,200 nuclear warheads aloft.
But today only half the Typhoons are working. Three of the huge boats have been taken out of service. A new missile planned for them has yet to materialize, and it is unclear whether they will ever sail again.
Russia started construction in November 1996 on a new generation of strategic submarine, the Borey class, at the Severodvinsk shipyard in the north. But according to Baker, only 1 percent of the first submarine has been completed in 15 months of work, and the new missile planned for it has failed four times.
In addition to preserving its strategic submarine fleet, the navy is facing other pressing financial obligations. One of the most persistent headaches is that submarines have a service life of 25 to 30 years, but must undergo an interim overhaul every seven or eight years. For lack of financing for these repairs, many vessels are being retired early.
So far, 152 submarines have been retired officially and more are unofficially in line to be retired. A huge backlog of nuclear-powered vessels awaiting dismantling is building up in the Northern and Far Eastern ports, which environmentalists and others have warned has the potential for a naval disaster similar to that at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.
"We have whole graveyards of nuclear weapons and we don't know what to do with them," said Georgi Arbatov, a prominent strategist and adviser to Soviet leaders.
The core of Russian strategic forces is the land-based, continent-spanning missiles. But the clock is ticking for them, too.
Most of the missiles built in the 1970s and '80s are due to be retired or decommissioned if the START II treaty is ratified. This includes the 10-warhead "heavy" missile, the SS-18, which embodied the destabilizing threat of multiple-warhead missiles. Russia's force of SS-19 six-warhead missiles would also be reduced, and fixed with only one warhead each. The abolition of multiple warheads was the chief accomplishment of the START II treaty.
Some Russian politicians have threatened that Moscow could return to multiple-warhead missiles if it had to, but military experts pour cold water on the idea. It would be "senseless from the military point of view and impossible from the economic point of view," said Vladimir Dvorkin, director of the 4th Central Research Institute, the once-secret think tank for the Russian rocket forces.
A Brick Wall of Obsolescence
If START II is not ratified, the Russian missile forces will nonetheless hit a brick wall of obsolescence in the next decade. Gen. Vladimir Yakovlev, chief of the strategic rocket forces, said recently that 62 percent of Russia's missiles are already beyond their guaranteed service life. For the Russian military, this is often flexible. But there are serious problems: As the factories that made the missiles grind to a halt, and the workers and designers leave for other jobs, the problem of maintenance becomes acute. Scavenging for spare parts is common.
"They have to decide," said a Western diplomat, "what is the risk? And, what choice do they have?"
The Russian military has repeatedly test-fired old rockets to see if they still work. They usually hit their targets. But last spring, according to one source, when a Typhoon attempted to fire 20 older rockets as part of a destruction routine, only 19 missiles came out. One failed to launch.
Volkov said: "Everything ends. In 22 or 23 years, a moment comes when everything starts to collapse or fall apart. Each piece of equipment has a moment when the construction simply gets old. You can change the equipment, you can change small things. But when the silo, the container, the body of the missile, when they are corroded, fungus eats through the metal, things start to grow on it -- God knows what."
Dvorkin said there is an expensive, labor-intensive drive to stretch out missile-service life. "But of course, we can't hope that we can do it endlessly," he said. "Not a single builder or scientist can tell you right now how long we can extend it." He added that eventually it becomes more costly to fix the rockets than to buy new ones.
The Strategic Rocket Forces are already struggling to deploy a new missile, the three-stage Topol-M, to be the core of Russia's future deterrent. That missile, both road-mobile and silo-based, is built entirely within Russia and designers have said its payload contains still-secret means for slipping through antimissile defenses.
The main question about the Topol-M is not so much technology as money and time. In December, the first two rockets were installed in an old SS-19 silo near Saratov, on the Volga River. Yakovlev said Russia hopes to deploy 10 missiles this year, but needs another $600 million before production can start. In the Soviet era, the Votkinsk factory, which builds the missiles in the central Urals mountains, made about 80 rockets a year. But now there are doubts about whether Russia can afford just 10 a year.
Looking for an Exit
For Russian strategic planners, the choices are painful. The Cold War is over but its immense and destructive hardware remains in place. Russia hungers for global prestige; many see the nuclear arsenal as its last remaining calling card as a great power. But Russia can't afford to sustain it any longer.
Some prominent military and political analysts have begun to talk about finding a way out of the cocked-trigger nuclear embrace with the United States, if only because Russia's dwindling forces demand it.
"The model of nuclear deterrence that existed during the Cold War must of course be radically changed," Dvorkin said, "since it is senseless right now to deter the United States from an attack, nuclear or conventional, on Russia."
Sergei Rogov, director of the USA-Canada Institute and a leading strategic analyst, said Russia and the United States have settled their long ideological struggle, but not even begun to wind down the nuclear threat. The 1994 agreement by Clinton and Yeltsin that missiles will not be targeted at each other was "a step back from this trigger-happy situation," he said, but it was "a gimmick, because it's reversible in one or two minutes." In fact, according to a Russian specialist, the Russian missiles can be re-targeted in 10 to 15 seconds.
Rogov said both countries still preserve intact the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, a Cold War legacy under which both sides threaten to respond to an attack by wreaking massive damage on the other. "You don't threaten your 'strategic partner' with assured destruction 24 hours a day," Rogov said. "We need to abandon the Mutual Assured Destruction conditions with the United States."
But the traditional arms control process is at an impasse. The Duma has refused to ratify the START II agreement. Without it, the United States has refused to begin formal negotiations on deeper cuts in a START III treaty. Many of Russia's top military strategists are eager to move ahead with deeper, joint reductions that would match the looming obsolescence of their forces.
At the same time, there is a new line of thinking that Russia should abandon bilateral negotiations with the United States and instead create a small and "sufficient" nuclear force, not unlike France's independent nuclear posture.
In an article just published in a Russian academic journal, Kremlin defense aide Kortunov and Vladimir Bogomolov, of the rocket forces, suggested Russia keep an independent force of 1,000 warheads. They argued that this would "allow Russia to choose and adopt her own nuclear strategy." They said Russia could do this unilaterally and "there will be no need for new talks" with the United States.
Among Russia's military and political elite there is also a strong consensus that the West is no longer Russia's strategic adversary -- and that the nuclear face-off is burdensome, diverting resources from other real problems. Many have concluded that Russia, with a long, sparsely populated southern border, needs to deter potential threats from the south and east -- from the Islamic world and China -- over the coming decade.
"I don't think Russia will have to worry about its western borders," said a top Kremlin security specialist. "This will give us more time to pay attention to the southern borders."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company