Putin flaunts nuclear shield and pledges to be 'pro-market'

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The Independent Online

Vladimir Putin chose an atomic city yesterday as the place to make his first policy statement, warning the West that Russia intended to keep a strong nuclear deterrent but expressing readiness to advance arms control.

The newly-elected President also said he would bring into government "pro-market professionals", a promise likely to encourage foreign investors. The speech, made during a visit to a nuclear weapons centre in the once-closed Urals city of Chelyabinsk-70, was a balanced performance by Mr Putin, who has vowed to make the world respect Russia.

The West should not take fright at his use of the expression "strong state", he said, as that did not mean he was going to introduce a dictatorship. "What we are talking about is a strong state where rules are secured by laws and their observation is guaranteed." Mr Putin, a former KGB agent, said that nuclear weapons were vital for Russia's status "as a state capable of defending itself. We must increase the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrence potential." But the task was to make Russia's atomic arms safer and more efficient, not to build up the arsenal.

Indeed, Mr Putin said Russia remained committed to international arms cuts. "Russia holds and will continue to hold talks on further cuts in strategic offensive weapons aimed at making the world safer and ridding it of piles of weapons." That was a reference to negotiations between Russia and the United States on a START-III treaty for deep arms cuts. START-II, signed in 1993, has languished because the Russian parliament has refused to ratify it. But Mr Putin said he would step up efforts to get it through the new State Duma.

Russia may be economically broken but it remains a nuclear superpower, with hundreds of missiles inherited from the Soviet Union, some of which are in unsafe conditions. A new generation of Topol-M ballistic missiles is being deployed but state funding is tight.

Mr Putin, accompanied on his trip to Chelyabinsk by Igor Sergeyev, the Defence Minister, met atomic industry chiefs at the research and production centre before talking to workers. In Soviet times, they were relatively well paid but under Boris Yeltsin their wages were delayed for months.

Whether Mr Putin discussed salaries with them was unclear, but he did say that future attempts to modernise the nuclear industry should be carried out "avoiding thoughtless restructuring and layoffs". The new President then went off to watch a judo contest.

In his visit to the Urals there was something for everybody. Foreign businessmen, for example, were likely to be pleased by his promise to guarantee property rights and make sure that ministers he will name after his May inauguration all favour a free market.

* Underlining the fact that Chechnya remains a problem for Vladimir Putin, the UN human rights chief, Mary Robinson, arrived in Moscow yesterday on a five-day trip which will include a visit to detention camps in the breakaway republic where Russian troops have been accused of torturing civilians.

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