Russia to maintain nuclear arsenal

MOSCOW - Russia will maintain its arsenal nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Friday, boasting that the country's SS-20 missile was capable of penetrating any defense system in existence.

In a visit to a Strategic Missile Forces base in the Ural Mountain region, Ivanov said the troops responsible for land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles were a key element of Russia's national defense and would receive "priority attention" from the Kremlin.

"The Strategic Missile Forces have been and remain a most important factor in the deterrence of aggressive aspirations and intentions toward Russia and our allies," the Interfax news agency quoted Ivanov as saying at the base in Kartaly, in the Chelyabinsk region.

He did not name any allies and said Russia's plans for its nuclear forces have "no relation to the U.S. plans for a national missile defense system," according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. "Russia will develop its Strategic Nuclear Forces regardless of the relations it maintains with the United States or any other country," it quoted him as saying.

The United States angered many in Russia this year by withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which barred both countries from building national missile defenses like the one the Bush administration wants to create.

But President Vladimir Putin made little of the U.S. withdrawal, and Moscow's relations with its former Cold War foe have improved significantly since Putin offered support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism after Sept. 11. Putin and Bush signed a treaty in May to slash their nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds, to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads apiece.

Ivanov boasted about the "superpowerful, highly effective RS-20 missiles" deployed at Kartaly, saying the missile — known in the West as the SS-20 Satan — is the "core of the combat might" of the strategic forces and can "overcome the most modern missile defense system."

However, Ivanov said the decision to continue deploying the SS-20 was "in no way connected" to the American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

The United States says it wants a national missile defense to defend against attacks by rogue states or terrorists, not Russia.

As his defense chief sought to raise morale among the missile forces, Putin visited the design bureau of a top Russian military jet maker, Sukhoi, and promised support for the industry, Russian news agencies reported.

"The leadership of the country will be paying close attention to the development of this industry," Interfax quoted Putin as saying. Aircraft make up half of Russia's weapons exports, and Sukhoi accounts for 45 percent of that total, the agency said.

Russia's government adopted a draft budget Thursday that would raise defense spending by 26 percent to about $11 billion, with some of the extra money to provide for higher pay and new equipment for the military, whose morale, prestige and financing have plunged since the Soviet collapse in 1991.