A rift between Russia' top two military leaders about the future of Russia's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force went public last week following Chief of the General Staff, Anatoli Kvashnin's, proposal to reorganize the Strategic Rocket Force (SRF). Russia's Minister of Defense, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, has sharply criticized the plan as "criminal stupidity and an attempt to harm Russia's national interests." His position has been echoed not only by the SRF but also by the Russian media. Despite this opposition Kvashnin's plan reflects a growing feeling in the Russian military that conventional forces, and particularly operations in Chechnya, unfairly bear the brunt of a tight military budget. Under Sergeyev, who used to head Russia's strategic forces, the needs of the ICBM forces have received priority.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst, argues that "ill-equipped [Russian] forces are failing to contain rebel attacks" in Chechnya because Sergeyev "spent all the available money to buy ICBMs" rather than attack helicopters and body armor.

Kvashnin's plan calls for eliminating all but 2 of Russia's 19 ICBM divisions, reducing the number of ICBMs to 150 by 2003, and reducing the entire Russian strategic force to 1,500 or fewer warheads. Furthermore, the plan would end the SRF's status as an independent member of the Armed Forces, either by downgrading the service to a "command" or by folding the SRF into the Air Force.

Over the weekend, President Putin held two meetings with Sergeyev and Kvashnin to resolve the dispute, but the leaders reached no decision and announced only that the issue would be taken up at a meeting of the Russian Security Council in late July. In making a final decision, Putin faces a considerable dilemma. On one hand, Kvashnin's plan has widespread support within the military, which has been a strong support base for Putin. On the other hand, a radical reorganization of Russia's nuclear forces could weaken Putin's ability to pressure the United States on START II and missile defense. Finally, if Putin compromises and takes the middle road, Russia's scarce defense resources may be spread too thin to improve the situation at all.