Prague, 10 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After years of delay, there is a real prospect that Russia will ratify a major nuclear arms reduction treaty this month. There is a good chance as well that a treaty setting ceilings on conventional weapons will soon be amended to further reduce the danger of armed conflict.
The nuclear arms treaty, known as START-Two (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty-Two) was signed in January 1993 by then U.S. President George Bush and Russia's President Boris Yeltsin. It was ratified by the U. S. Senate in January 1996 but, having attracted determined opposition in Russia's State Duma from nationalists and communists, has been stalled there for almost six years.
START Two sets limits of 3,000 to 3,500 nuclear warheads for each side, down from the 6,000 set in the earlier START-One treaty.
It is generally accepted that a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons is likely to reduce the danger of world war.
Many Russian politicians and military officials have long insisted that preserving a large number of nuclear weapons helps Russia maintain the status of a global superpower. They have been concerned that a reduction in the number of these weapons would affect Russia's international standing.
But this view has been slowly changing, largely owing to Russia's economic decline. It has become increasingly clear that economic difficulties have greatly undermined Russia's ability to maintain a large strategic nuclear arsenal, including major weapon systems which are now close to the end of their serviceable life. This is particularly the case for "heavy," land-based multiple-warhead missiles, which have long constituted the mainstay of Russia's nuclear force.
According to intelligence reports published in the West (New York Times, Dec. 1997), Russian military experts have been advocating a shift away from expensive "heavy" strategic nuclear weapons toward cheaper "light" tactical nuclear arms. This move has been linked with the current Russian military doctrine and planned reforms of its armed forces.
During recent weeks there have been recurring press reports that many State Duma deputies, who had been opposed to the ratification of START-Two, were changing their minds.
Yesterday, Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during their meeting in Brussels that the State Duma will "almost certainly" approve the terms of START-Two by the end of the month.
Albright promptly said she would travel to Moscow early next month to begin a new round of talks seeking further reductions in both the American and Russian nuclear arsenals. It is expected that a START-Three treaty would limit each side to fewer than 2,500 warheads.
During the same meeting yesterday Albright and Ivanov agreed to speed up negotiations on updating the eight-year old Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, setting national ceilings for tanks, troops and artillery across Europe.
The CFE treaty was signed in November 1990 between NATO and the now defunct Warsaw Pact. Since then, of course, the political and military map of Europe has changed. The updating is to account for this change.
The original treaty was based on a "bloc-to-bloc" concept. Two years ago, NATO moved to replace this with a treaty "between the states" and made a series of proposals for the "flank" zones stretching from Norway to Turkey and Saint Petersburg to the Caucasus and on "verification" procedures.
Moscow has sought adjustments to the distribution of weapons and troops in particular zones, insisting on the right to bolster its military strength in both the north (in the Leningrad military district) and in the Caucasus. In addition, Moscow has sought limitations on the level of armaments in the prospective "eastern" NATO members (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland). It also has argued for the establishment of a special "security zone" in Central Europe (including the three new NATO members and Belarus, Ukraine and the region of Kaliningrad) in which in addition to arms restrictions there would also be a ban on large scale military exercises.
NATO has been opposed to these demands. According to a report in the Polish newspaper "Rzeczpospolita," Albright yesterday told Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek that the U.S. would insist that the new CFE treaty give Poland --and presumably the other new NATO members-- an equal standing to all current NATO states.
After the talks with Ivanov, Albright yesterday said that NATO would seek in the negotiations on the CFE to reach "a balanced treaty that benefits us all."
Talks on updating the CFE treaty are due to begin early next year in Vienna and are to end by next November.