NIZHNY TAGILL, Russia - A squabble among Russia's top brass about the future of the armed forces spilled over into the public arena yesterday as President Vladimir V. Putin and his generals attended a major arms show aimed at spit-shining the military's image.
Military and national security leaders have struggled for months over ways to restructure the armed forces and resuscitate the country's military-industrial complex as part of Putin's goal of overhauling the Russian government.
At a closed-door meting earlier in the week, Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin, recommended eliminating the strategic nuclear forces as a separate branch of the military and folding it under one of the remaining three.
He reportedly described the standing army as in a "near critical" state and suggested savings from cuts in the nuclear branch could be used to re-equip and better train conventional forces.
Opposition to the plan erupted publicly yesterday, when Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who made his career in the strategic forces, said that a move like this would be a "crime against Russia and just plain madness," according to the Interfax news agency.
Appearing at the Urals Expo 2000 here yesterday, Putin tried to quell the dispute among the generals.
The discussion of restructuring the military "involves a major, fundamental decision upon which the country's future depends. Such a decision cannot be made behind closed doors, but nor can it be opened up to nationwide debate," the president said, adding that no decision was imminent.
If Kvashnin's measure is adopted, it would disrupt the international balance of nuclear forces and represent a 180-degree about-face in the strategic policy of the country, analysts said.
"Breaking from the history of parity with the United States would be a major development," said military analyst Nicholai Novichkov.
Currently, the 1.2 million-strong military is organized into ground, air, naval and strategic forces. The strategic forces oversee the nuclear arsenal and are the cornerstone of the Soviet Union's military and foreign policy.
Russian weapons makers exhibiting their wares at the arms expo said their future relied on the government jump-starting weapons procurement, not on one-time sales to foreign governments.