The Washington Post, August 21, 2000

The fate of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk is a tragic metaphor for Russia's rapid descent in the past decade from global superpower status.

The Kursk was engaged in exercises simulating conflict with NATO forces a decade after the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War. The Soviet Union's development of an ocean-going nuclear submarine force was an important part of the mammoth efforts of the Kremlin to achieve military parity with the United States.

Today these forces, along with the rest of the Russian nuclear weapons complex, no longer present the threat of Armageddon that was feared for decades. Rather, they are feared because of questions about Russia's ability to safely and reliably control the weapons
and materials.

The choices Russia makes in the next few years about its military forces will have a large impact on international security. With a gross national product about the size of Switzerland's and an annual military budget of some $5 billion, Russia faces hard decisions about allocating resources in the most effective manner to improve national security.

This was the topic of a Russian National Security Council meeting on Aug. 11 that sought to address major differences among the top brass in Moscow. The minister of defense, Igor Sergeyev, supports funding for Russian nuclear forces as the top priority, while the chief of the Russian general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, wants to see more support devoted to Russian conventional forces.

Both can bring compelling arguments to bear. Given the dramatic deterioration of Russia's conventional capabilities, its nuclear forces remain the primary currency to support Moscow's status as an international great power. But nuclear weapons hardly are effective or even usable weapons in the kinds of conflicts Russia is mostly likely to find itself in for the next decade or two. They didn't help in Afghanistan, and they aren't helping in Chechnya.

Even in the best-case scenario of prolonged Russian economic growth, Russia will be forced to make major changes in its force structure because of severe financial constraints. Making these hard choices could be the logical conclusion of the demilitarization initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, and they also can have a revolutionary impact on international security, as did his "new political thinking," which led to the end of the Cold War.

The rapid aging of strategic nuclear forces means that Russia needs to reduce its arsenal of nuclear warheads dramatically, to no more than 1,000 in the coming decade. This can be done either bilaterally with the United States in the traditional arms control format, or it can be done unilaterally. Proceeding unilaterally would put considerable pressure on the United States to reciprocate at least in part. It also would provide a stimulus to arms reduction after nearly a decade of no progress and would help revive global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, which have suffered a series of blows in recent years.

Russian conventional forces also will need to downsize and at the same time be made more flexible for possible deployment in regional action in the Eurasian periphery. These forces should be structured not so much for conflicts with major powers such as NATO or China but rather to address the new agenda of post-Cold War security threats resulting from weak states and civil conflicts, drug trafficking, terrorism and information warfare.

Threats such as these are aided and abetted by globalization, but they cannot be effectively addressed by unilateral action. They require greater cooperation on the part of Russia with the West and its neighbors. Increasing recognition of this fact would contribute greatly not only to Russia's security but to international security in general.

Of course, all this may sound like an effort to make lemonade out of lemons. Given the societal trauma Russia continues to experience coupled with the series of humiliations (Chechnya, NATO expansion, Kosovo) that this still-proud military elite has experienced, there remains a good deal of danger and uncertainty. Apocalyptic scenarios for Russia were nearly conventional wisdom for many in the '90s, and there remain far darker alternatives than the one outlined above.

Paradoxically, however, despite its current weakness--symbolized by the Kursk--the Russian Federation has the power to make some fundamental choices about its security policy that can have a revolutionary impact on international relations. It is the human condition to want to make radical changes only in response to crisis. Thus, despite the United States' unprecedented prosperity and its position of strength, it seems far less likely than Russia to want to initiate fundamental change in security policy.

Russia, meanwhile, must learn the lesson taught by the Kursk tragedy: that the military complex inherited by the Russian Federation is inadequate to meet the new security challenges of Moscow, and further pretensions to maintain it will reduce Russian security as well as pose grave dangers to the rest of the world.

The writer directs the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.