Russia's Security Council adopted a new military doctrine yesterday under which Moscow will reserve the right to make first use of nuclear weapons if the "very existence of the country" is at stake.
The doctrine indicates that under its president-elect, Vladimir Putin, Russia means not to be aggressive but to be a strong state with which the West will have to reckon.
Russia's former military doctrine, written in 1993 in the atmosphere of international euphoria that followed the end of the Cold War, stated that the country would not initiate a nuclear war. Theoretically, the new doctrine increases the danger of Moscow resorting to atomic missiles, as it would allow Mr Putin to press the nuclear button if Russia were, for example, overwhelmed in a conventional attack.
The doctrine, developed after Nato angered Russia by bombing Kosovo and Serbia last year, reflects Moscow's determination to be respected worldwide. But Western and Russian military analysts said there was no cause for panic, because Russia continued to regard nuclear weapons as a last-ditch deterrent.
As if to underline that a strong Russia posed no threat to the West, the State Duma also voted yesterday to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans underground nuclear tests worldwide. The Communists held out against the accord, arguing that in approving the Start-2 strategic weapons treaty last week, Russian parliament had already given away too much.
But pro-Kremlin deputies outnumbered them, giving Mr Putin another card to play in his dealings with the West. Moscow is now ahead of Washington on the question of nuclear disarmament, as the US Senate has still to ratify the test-ban treaty. Britain and France have ratified the pact.
Before he won the presidency, Mr Putin, in an interview with David Frost, floated the idea that Russia, which opposed the eastward expansion of Nato, might join the Western alliance if it received equal- partner status. Russia experts recognised that "proposal" for what it was: a calling of the West's bluff, for Mr Putin knew well that Nato was not about to accept Russia as a member.
Then at the end of March, in the atomic city of Chelyabinsk-70, the new Kremlin leader set out Russia's real security policy. The country would not build up its arsenals, indeed it would seek to make further arms cuts, but it would modernise the rockets it did keep, to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent.
Also yesterday, Russian officials dismissed comments from the Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, that he had ordered his rebels to halt attacks on Russian soldiers, as nothing more than a trick to win a breathing space in the war.
After the Security Council meeting, Mr Putin said Russia regarded Mr Maskhadov as a criminal. Moscow was not interested in anything less than the release of all hostages in Chechnya and the surrender of warlords responsible for raids on Russia.
* Russia's coastguard fired on a Japanese fishing boat yesterday in Japan's northern waters, officials in Tokyo said. But reports from Moscow said a Russian patrol boat had come across a fishing boat in Russian territorial waters with its name and number concealed.
The shots were fired 60 miles south of Japan's northernmost main island, Hokkaido, separate from disputed islands seized by Soviet forces after the Second World War.
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