MOSCOW - With a decision to cut 350,000 troops, Russia's leaders appear to have acknowleged that they can no longer afford armed forces like those that once stood eyeball to eyeball with NATO.
The troop reduction, confirmed Friday by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, would slash the ministry's forces from 1.2 million personnel - an enormous force that no longer gets enough money to properly equip, train and feed its troops.
''A corresponding decision has been made, and now (we) are preparing suggestions for the president on how to carry it out,'' Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev told journalists.
Speaking at a ceremony at the headquarters of the Kantemirovskaya tank division outside Moscow, Sergeyev said the reduction would be complete by 2003.
The move appears to reflect Russian leaders' growing recognition that the nation's lagging economy can no longer afford a military modeled on the Soviet forces that squared off against the United States and Europe during the Cold War.
That required a large land army of troops and tanks, thousands of combat aircraft and hundreds of ships, plus thousands of nuclear missiles.
The current Russian defense budget is just $5.1 billion, compared with annual U.S. defense spending of about $290 billion.
''They just can't afford to keep up a world-class armed forces on that kind of money,'' said Keith Bush, head of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The Kursk ''is just one example of overreach,'' said Bush, pointing to the lack of rescue and safety equipment that left the navy floundering to reach the nuclear sub after it sank Aug. 12. Pilots don't fly enough to keep up their skills, there's no money for new equipment and common soldiers sometimes go unfed.
Following the sinking of the Kursk, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia should trim its military into a ''compact'' and modern fighting force.
But even before the disaster, Putin had made reviving the armed forces a top priority. One of his first actions as president was to approve plans to modernize Russia's conventional weapons.
Russia already has cut its armed forces down from 5 million troops in the past decade under a reform program launched by former President Boris Yeltsin. But military restructuring lagged under Yeltsin, weakened by illness and unpopularity in the later part of his rule, which ended with his resignation Dec. 31.
The program announced by Sergeyev would carry the Yeltsin-era reduction even further. The deepest cuts would come in land forces, with about 180,000 troops removed from active service, the Interfax news agency reported, citing an unidentified source in the Defense Ministry. Among other cuts, the navy would lose 50,000 personnel and the air force about 40,000, the report said.
Those cuts would come from the 1.2 million troops counted under Sergeyev's Defense Ministry. There are yet more counted under the Interior Ministry, the intelligence services, the Interior Ministry, and even the railroad forces.
But just cutting back won't be enough, said Alexander Golts, military affairs writer for Moscow's Itogi magazine.
The key question is whether Russia also changes the goals it sets before the military - from maintaining an unaffordable parity with the West to dealing with local conflicts like the war in Chechnya, where troops are bogged down in a fierce struggle with guerrillas seeking independence.
Without a new orientation, Russia will still face a mismatch between what it wants and what its economy will pay for, Golts said: ''As long as the task of offsetting NATO exists, all these cuts will not achieve their effect.''