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Russia Asserts Military Options

It maintains the right to its own preemptive strikes, but downplays threat posed by NATO.

October 11, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — While taking pains to downplay possible new nuclear threats to NATO, the Kremlin this week has made it clear it is prepared to use preemptive strikes against perceived threats and will continue to mobilize Russia's vast nuclear arsenal to deter a new generation of low-level instability on its borders.

A wide-ranging new doctrine for Russian military preparedness in the 21st century, presented to North Atlantic Treaty Organization generals in Colorado Springs, states that large-scale war with the U.S. or other NATO members has for the first time "been excluded from the spectrum of the most probable conflicts."

Yet it warns that Russia must be prepared for a growing number of conflicts -- such as the U.S.-led war in Iraq -- waged outside the authority of the United Nations, and wars increasingly motivated as much by economics or the interests of "big transnational companies" as national security.

Terrorism and instability in the former Soviet states along its borders are seen as the greatest military threat to Russia in the next generation, and Kremlin officials this week emphasized that the kind of preemptive strike upon which the Bush administration relied in Iraq -- the subject of substantial criticism from Moscow -- is a potential tool for Russia as well.

"The specifics of contemporary external threats require that the Russian armed forces be able to perform various duties in various regions of the world. We cannot absolutely rule out preemptive use of force if this is dictated by Russia's interests or its commitments to allies," Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov told a recent gathering of the Russian military leadership in Moscow.

The policy could come into play in places such as Georgia. Moscow alleges that rebels from its breakaway republic of Chechnya have launched incursions into Russia from that country's remote Pankisi Gorge.

In addition to modernizing its 1.2-million-member army and upgrading air defenses against the increasing prevalence of high-tech air warfare, Russia will continue to rely on its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent force -- no longer against the West, analysts said, but against nations near its borders, including North Korea and Iran, whose nuclear programs have prompted concern.

Increasingly, they said, Russia worries about the small, turbulent nations of Central Asia, where the combination of Islamic extremism, ethnic conflict and weak governments is seen as a continuing threat.

Moscow set off alarm bells in the West this week when it warned that it would expect NATO to follow through on present trends toward cooperation -- a signal that Russia still worries about NATO expansion on its borders, particularly with the invitation to former Soviet states in the Baltic region to join the alliance.

"If NATO remains a military alliance with today's offensive military doctrine," the Russian policy states, "a radical restructuring of the Russian defense planning and of the principles of the Russian armed forces development, including altering of Russia's nuclear position, will be required."

Ivanov, in his meetings with NATO generals this week, provided assurances that Russia did not see the alliance as an aggressor. A senior Russian military official told reporters in Moscow that Russia's "top-priority task is to preserve peace and prevent a nuclear war."

"Someone may say we're threatening NATO with a war. No, this is not true. In fact, it is stated in the doctrine that Russia believes it is necessary to exclude from military planning a possible war with any coalition of forces led by the United States," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said it "would be incorrect to talk about a new nuclear policy of the Russian Federation."

Yet it was clear that Russia by no means intended to play down the potential deterrent effect of its remaining strategic array. President Vladimir V. Putin, at a meeting in Moscow unveiling the doctrine, made a point of the fact that Russia still had a large reserve of UR-100 NU land-based heavy strategic missiles, each capable of carrying several nuclear warheads, that have an "unmatched" capability to defeat missile defense systems.

"These are the most formidable missiles, and we have dozens of them," he said. Analysts said the missiles had never been fueled or put into deployment.

And Russian officials this week said the doctrine reflected a need to respond to the Bush administration's talk of developing a new generation of low-yield, battlefield nuclear arms.

"It's not clear to me why the most powerful country in the world is lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Why would anyone want to use nuclear weapons in order to destroy, for example, [Osama] bin Laden?" the senior military official said. "We are against using nuclear weapons in theaters of military operations. Let's leave a political [deterrent] function for nuclear weapons."

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