With the Cold War over and its conventional army in disarray, Russia may seem less of a threat, but its arsenal could destroy the U.S., which meanwhile continues to build both offensive and defensive weapons.

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MOSCOW — It was near the end of President Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign early this year, and two days of high-profile military exercises highlighting his role as Russia’s commander in chief had been marred by failed tests of submarine-launched missiles.

But Putin dispelled the gloom. The exercises, he said at a news conference, confirmed that Russia soon would possess intercontinental nuclear weapons capable of maneuvering in flight to evade anti-missile defenses.

“No other country in the world has such weapons systems,” Putin said. “It means that Russia has been and will remain one of the biggest nuclear-missile powers in the world. Some people may like it and some may not, but everyone will have to reckon with it.”

The end of the Cold War, improved relations with the United States and the personal rapport between Putin and President Bush have served to make Moscow’s military seem far less ominous than in Soviet times. On top of that, Russia’s conventional forces have vastly weakened.

The sad state of its regular military has caused Moscow to place fresh emphasis on nuclear weapons to protect its interests in Europe and Asia. The United States is building military bases in some former Soviet republics. NATO has expanded eastward into the former Soviet Baltic republics. The United States has continued to develop missile defenses.

The world may have only one superpower, but the United States and Russia still could destroy each other many times over.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the February launch of a booster rocket carrying a military satellite. He says Russia will remain a strong nuclear power.

“In the current situation, the role of nuclear weapons for Russia is hard to overestimate,” said retired Gen. Makhmut Gareyev, president of the Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow. “Basically it is the only factor which can still ensure our country’s safety. We have nothing else to repel strategic military threats anymore.”

Missiles buy respect

Nuclear weapons also ensure prestige for Russia. Some Russian analysts maintain that their country’s nuclear arsenal is the only reason it has been given a seat at the table with the world’s major industrial powers.

“It shouldn’t be forgotten that Russia was invited to the G-8 because it has around 800 strategic missiles,” military analyst Victor Litovkin wrote recently in the weekly newspaper Moskovskie Novosti. “Strategic missiles remain the only chance to make the world respect Russia in the near future.”

The conventional forces are a shadow of the army that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization once feared could overrun Western Europe. Dispirited and poorly trained draftees equipped with aging and poorly maintained weapons have taken a beating from separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya. A tradition of brutal hazing leads to high rates of suicide and desertion among conscripts.

The army is top-heavy and works with a technologically outdated command-and-control system.

But Russia has about 7,800 operational nuclear warheads, roughly divided between 4,400 strategic warheads and 3,400 tactical nuclear weapons, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a U.S. journal considered among the most authoritative public sources for such information. An additional 9,000 warheads are in storage or officially out of service and awaiting dismantling.

The United States, the journal said, has about one-third more strategic warheads, but a smaller total stockpile.

Russia’s land- and submarine-launched strategic warheads have a total explosive power equal to about 120,000 bombs of the size that destroyed Hiroshima.

A single Hiroshima-size blast in downtown Los Angeles, according to a computer projection done several years ago by Physicians for Social Responsibility, would kill about 150,000 people immediately and 100,000 more from neutron and gamma radiation. An additional 800,000 people would be exposed to high-level radiation.

Although the futuristic new weapon that Putin alluded to during his campaign and again in comments Nov. 17 may never be deployed, Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces.

The silo-based Topol-M missile, deployed in 1997, was designed to accelerate faster during its booster phase to counter U.S. efforts to shoot down missiles immediately after launch. At least 36 are in service, and a mobile version is in final testing. They will form the core of Russia’s land-based missile force after 2015, said Yuri Solomonov, director of the state-run Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, the missile’s builder.

The Topol-M “belongs to the next generation of missile weaponry and differs fundamentally from everything that has been done before in this field in our country and abroad,” Solomonov said in May.

Real arms control?

Russia has had more trouble developing a missile for use on new submarines. Many of Russia’s Soviet-era submarines have been scrapped. Some have been refurbished and three new ones are being built.

“The old submarines should go to a junkyard already. It’s time,” said Pavel Zolotarev, another retired general who is now deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ USA-Canada Institute. “And a new submarine needs a new missile to be installed in it — more perfect, more safe, more reliable.”

Four years ago, leaking torpedo propellant caused an explosion that sank the Kursk nuclear submarine, killing its 118-man crew in what Russia’s top prosecutor called a technical malfunction for which no one was to blame.

Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said the accident on Aug. 12, 2000, was triggered by a leak of highly unstable hydrogen peroxide that exploded after contact with kerosene and the metal body of the torpedo.

Construction of the three submarines has been delayed, partly because of missile failures. Several missiles test-launched in the late 1990s blew up before reaching their targets. A new missile, the Bulava-30, was successfully tested in September, according to a Russian military publication. Like the Topol-M, the Bulava-30 boasts fast acceleration on takeoff and other “enhanced systems” to overcome missile defenses, the journal reported.

The first of the new submarines, named the Yuri Dolgoruky after Moscow’s 12th-century founder, is scheduled for delivery by 2006. All three are supposed to be in service by 2012.

Washington and Moscow may not intend to unleash these weapons, but neither side fully trusts the other, either. And both are concerned about the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

Bush and Putin have agreed to reduce deployed strategic nuclear weapons to no more than 2,200 each by 2012. But their agreement contributed to the final demise of the 1993 START II treaty. The pact would have eliminated all land-based strategic missiles equipped with multiple warheads.

During the Cold War, missiles fitted with multiple warheads were considered particularly destabilizing. If one side launched them first, it theoretically could destroy a larger number of enemy missiles than the number it used. That arithmetic made it more difficult to reach a stable balance between the two sides.

Washington and Moscow now plan to retain missiles with multiple warheads, and neither is under any obligation to destroy nonoperational warheads, leading some critics to question whether real arms control is taking place.

Threatening scenario

With so many bombs still in so many places, a lot of things could go wrong. The danger of terrorists gaining possession of a nuclear bomb may head the list.

Zolotarev, of the USA-Canada Institute, said terrorists could try to trick Russia and the United States into firing missiles at each other. He painted a scenario where three events take place simultaneously: a sea-launched missile of undetermined origin is fired toward Russia, a so-called dirty bomb — a conventional device rigged with radioactive materials — explodes in a Russian city and false information gets into the nuclear-weapons-management system.

“We must take into account that terrorists also get the knack of modern technologies, and to pit one nuclear power against the other nuclear power, to achieve their mutual destruction, can be a very alluring task,” Zolotarev said.

Although unlikely, he said that it was a bigger threat than a war between Russia and the United States.

Russia’s military budget — including items listed under other headings — has grown 84 percent in real terms since 1999, according to calculations by Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. The official military budget is set to jump an additional 17 percent next year, to about $22 billion.

In the late 1990s, when funds were tight, maintenance of Russia’s nuclear forces was a top priority, Safranchuk said. “The nuclear umbrella was regarded as a must to be funded, and it was taking up to 80 percent of procurement and research and development money,” he said.

The nuclear forces lost their luster for a few years but now seem to have regained it, he said.

Russia’s official budget proposal for 2005 earmarks $300 million for the nuclear-weapons sector and $2.8 billion for military research, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported. Many details of Russian military spending are secret, but the research category could include significant nuclear-related activities.

Evading U.S. defenses

Alexei Arbatov, former deputy chairman of the defense committee of the lower house of Parliament, said political leaders should tell defense planners on both sides to stop regarding the other side as a potential enemy.

“Until they are told not to do so … this will continue to poison our relations,” he told a forum on U.S.-Russian security issues earlier this year at the Carnegie Center Moscow.

Nuclear weapons take years to develop, and with the Topol-M missile, Russia has countered one element of the Reagan-era “star wars” defense idea of a space-based laser system that would destroy missiles during their boost stage, Safranchuk said.

There are no details available on the maneuvering device Putin referred to in February, but it apparently is designed to protect a warhead after a ballistic missile re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Russian experts have suggested that it might resemble a cruise missile or that it could be a gliding warhead that could use momentum and the resistance of the atmosphere to change directions and evade U.S. defense systems.

Whether this new technology is deployed, for the foreseeable future Russia still has enough weapons to simply overwhelm any U.S. anti-missile defense. The Bush administration, for its part, insists that the purpose of anti-missile defense is not to provide a shield against Russia but against a small number of missiles launched by a rogue state such as North Korea.

Pentagon officials said they closely monitor advances in ballistic-missile technology by countries such as Russia and China, especially those that may affect plans for U.S. defense systems.

“We’d be fools to think that Russia is not taking steps to develop its ballistic-missile capabilities,” said one defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the past, defense experts have said that a maneuverable missile could evade a missile-defense system; however, U.S. officials prefer to emphasize U.S.-Russian cooperation on terrorism and on reducing nuclear arsenals.

Brookings Institute President Strobe Talbott, a Russia expert who was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, said that although U.S. policy-makers had not completely dismissed the possibility of a confrontation with Russia, “they do not lay awake at night worrying about ‘the bad Russia, the bad bear’ coming out of its lair and threatening the United States.”

But U.S. officials are expressing concern about Russia’s large investments in new submarines capable of carrying nuclear missiles because the money could be better spent elsewhere, he said.

“They say, ‘This is bad because it’s money that Russia can’t afford. It’s money that Russia ought to be spending on becoming a modern country.’ “

Talbott said Russia had a choice between emphasizing military strength or other forms of influence — the economic, diplomatic and cultural weight sometimes defined as “soft power.”

“Russia is a great power,” he said. “It is going to be a great power forever, for all intents and purposes. The question is: Is it going to be a great power that defines its greatness in military terms, or will it define its power in other terms. … If they spend too much, as they have traditionally done, on ‘hard power,’ it’s going to be all the harder for them to catch up in ‘soft power.’ “