Russia seeks to modernize strategic nuclear forces

November 29, 1993|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- Deep in the Ural Mountains, Russian engineers are busy building a vast underground command post to use in case of a nuclear war. Equipped with an antenna for communicating with missile-carrying submarines and land-based mobile missiles, the bunker will be a new part of Russia's multi-billion-dollar effort to modernize its dwindling strategic nuclear forces.

Russia's soldiers may miss a paycheck or two, but the military is determined to maintain Russia's status as a nuclear superpower.

Current efforts are modest compared with the heady days of the Cold War. Most of Russia's missile-firing submarines are in port and its mobile land-based missiles are generally kept in garrison. By and large, however, Russia's nuclear forces are well-maintained.

The Russian military also is developing three more missiles: a silo-based missile, a new mobile missile to replace its single-warhead SS-25 and a new submarine-launched missile.

Equally important, the military has changed the way it talks about nuclear weapons. Its new doctrine drops Moscow's long-standing pledge not to strike first with nuclear weapons; instead Russia reserves its right to use nuclear weapons first against nuclear states and against nonnuclear states that are in alliance with nations that have nuclear weapons.

That formulation is intended to maintain pressure on Ukraine to give up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union and ...TC to discourage Eastern European nations from seeking admission NATO.

American officials say that while they never took the original pledge seriously, the change reflects the Russian view that nuclear weapons are needed to compensate for new weaknesses in conventional forces.

But the military's attachment to nuclear weapons has a cost. "If you are spending billions on new weapons you do not have billions to get rid of old ones," a Clinton administration official said.

While the breakup of the Soviet Union has played havoc with Russian conventional forces, it has had a far smaller effect on Russia's nuclear deterrent. According to Western estimates, there are about 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union, including about 7,000 in Russia. The Russian military maintains effective control of those in Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Ukraine is a special case. It took possession of 176 SS-19 and SS-24 multiple-warhead missiles when the Soviet Union broke up. While it is removing 20 SS-19 missiles from their silos, most of the force is intact.

But the loyalty of the Strategic Rocket Troops guarding the missiles is uncertain.

While the Cold War is over, both sides still have thousands of nuclear weapons trained on each other.

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