Russia raises alarm over nuclear arsenal

Russia could lose soon control of its vast nuclear arsenal unless there is a big increase in funding, the Defence Minister, Igor Rodionov, has said in a bleak assessment of the state of his crumbling army.

In a chilling warning, the minister said the military was so starved of resources that money to maintain the Soviet-era nuclear command centres, with their underground towns and railways, had dried up.

Mr Rodionov, who is fighting a fierce battle to raise government funds for sweeping army reforms, has issued dire predictions about the decline of the military before, but never with such emphasis on the strategic nuclear forces, the creme de la creme of the Cold War era.

But he revealed that Russia is still willing to come up with money for selected projects: the military hopes this year to introduce a new, Russian- made, intercontinental nuclear missile, the Topol-M, which would eventually form the basis of Moscow's nuclear force, he said. Officials say it is cheaper and performs better than Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

If the crisis persists, Russia's system of control over its arsenal could "fall apart", said the minister. "As the lifetime of the equipment expires, we have to replace or remove it. But we may not have such an opportunity in the next few years unless urgent measures are taken."

Although Mr Rodionov's remarks owe much to his unusually public budget battle, they will be widely viewed as credible in the West, given the mass of other evidence that Russia's military is in utter disarray - from rising suicide rates, mass draft dodging, murders among soldiers and a chaotic performance in the Chechen war.

In particular, they strike a chord with a leaked CIA report last year, which said the crisis was so acute that control over nuclear weapons had loosened. Worries have long existed in the West over Russia's ability to guard and maintain both its nuclear arsenal and conventional weapons. Unpaid soldiers have been stealing armaments from military depots and selling them on the black market to Russian criminal gangs.

"No one today can guarantee the reliability of our control systems," said the minister, "Russia might soon approach a threshold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems cannot be controlled".

He said a shortage of spy satellites meant Russia was restricted in its ability to monitor other countries while the US maintained a 24-hour watch on its former foes. "The whole horror of the thing is that, as Russia's defence minister, I am becoming a spectator of the destructive process in the army and cannot do anything about it."

The minister, a general who is now a civilian minister, made his strongest remarks to a gathering of Russian journalists on Thursday. He toned them down during a press conference in Moscow yesterday, saying that so far strategic nuclear systems were under control. But he did not withdraw his warning.

At yesterday's event he was joined by one of the government's chief defence advisers, Yuri Baturin, head of the Defence Council. Although the two men have been reportedly at loggerheads, they agreed about the crisis. "If things go on like this for another two years, we may have a Navy without ships, an air force without planes and a military industry incapable of producing modern weapons," said Mr Baturin.

Both men agreed that Boris Yeltsin's aim to give Russia a slimmed down, all-volunteer professional army within five years was unlikely to be completed within the timescale.

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