Putin fires top-ranking generals for favouring increased reliance on nuclear forces

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The Independent Online

Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sacked six top generals last night in a row over the future of the country's land-based nuclear defence force - a decision which could foreshadow the dismissal of the defence minister himself.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sacked six top generals last night in a row over the future of the country's land-based nuclear defence force - a decision which could foreshadow the dismissal of the defence minister himself.

The six ousted generals are all allies of the Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, who has been embroiled in a row with the armed forces' chief of staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin, over the latter's proposal to downgrade the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) and integrate them into the conventional military structure.

Marshal Sergeyev hit back by labelling the plan "criminal stupidity" that would damage national security by reducing Russia's hand in crucial arms control talks with the US.

Although Mr Putin has ruled out an early re-organisation of the SRF, he is known to believe resources must be switched from the nuclear deterrent to Russia's conventional forces, whose weakness has been exposed in the Chechen war.

Commenting on the dismissals, Izvestia newspaper declared that Mr Putin "has chosen Anatoly Kvashnin". The minister had to demand an explanation "or accept the challenge hurled at him and prepare for a quick resignation".

The money swallowed up by the nuclear deterrent has already led Mr Putin to accept foreign funding for a $2bn (£1.33bn) programme to dispose of 34 tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, one of the deadliest relics of the Cold War.

In London yesterday, a top US arms control official insisted Europe must commit itself to financing up to half the programme to dispose of the material that was made redundant by cuts in Moscow's nuclear arsenals, including the Start-1 treaty with the US.

The US wants a financial deal in place by next summer's G-8 summit of the major industrial countries and Russia in Genoa. "If we don't do it, it will be a major setback for international arms control," Michael Guhin, the head of the US negotiating team, said.

But while the US has earmarked $400m for the Russian programme, only Britain of the major European allies has come up with a specific commitment, of £70m in the next 10 years. This will go towards two new facilities in Russia, to be completed by 2007, where plutonium will be converted for use in nuclear power stations.

If the target of treating 4 tons of Russian plutonium a year is met, the total of 34 tons will be neutralised by around 2015. But the programme will have to be extended or increased, if and when Start-3 and other future arms cuts are agreed.

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