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Russia pledges to follow through on delayed military reform

MOSCOW, May 16 (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to press ahead with much-awaited army reforms in his annual state-of-the-nation address Friday, making no mention of the delays the ambitious project has faced.

"We will continue to form a permanent, professional rapid reaction force," Putin said, adding that the government was sticking to a 2007 timeline.

Russia has said it would reform and professionalize its chronically underfunded 1.1-million-strong military for over a decade.

A current plan proposed by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov would see a small but fully professional force as the backbone of the country's defenses by 2007 while leaving the highly unpopular draft process almost completely intact.

Putin said that the conscription -- a process notorious for rampant hazing and ill treatment of new conscripts -- would be reduced from two years to one beginning in 2008.

The professionalization of the armed forces would begin with non-commissioned officers (NCOs), Putin said.

"Only a ready, professional service must serve in hot spots and local conflicts," he added.

Those who choose to join the army on a contract basis will be showered with a host of benefits, Putin said, including preferential entry into universities after three years of service.

And Russia will facilitate the process of getting Russian citizenship for nationals of former Soviet countries grouped in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) who join the Russian professional armed forces, Putin said.

Russia needs professional troops who "sincerely want to and are ready to serve their homeland," Putin said.

Observers have said that the professionalization reform put forward by Putin and Ivanov has run into stiff resistance from hawkish army generals trained in the Soviet era who are keen to preserve the military at its current size.

Putin also said Friday that Russia would soon introduce a new generation of "strategic arms," without providing further details.

The new strategic arms "will allow us to ensure the long-term security" of Russia and its aliies, he added.

Putin's statements came just two days after the Russian lower house of parliament ratified a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States that requires both countries to slash their offensive nuclear stockpiles by two thirds by 2012.

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