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Russia: Many Factors Contributed To Duma Ratification Of START-II

  • Jolyon Naegele

The lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, ratified the START-II nuclear arms reduction treaty today by a vote of more than two to one (288 to 131). RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele interviews Don Jensen, a former U.S. missile inspector who is now associate director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, about the significance of the ratification.

Prague, 14 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The ratification of the START-II treaty by Russia's lower house of parliament comes seven years after Russian and U.S. leaders signed it and four years after the U.S. Senate ratified it.

U.S. arms control expert Don Jensen says the Russian ratification has come now as a result of many factors, including a shift in the balance of Russian political forces, the recent election of Vladimir Putin as president, and pressure by the United States.

"I think the timing is due largely to four factors. First, the fact that the new Duma took office at the beginning of this year and the new Duma is, so far at least, far more willing to go along with what the Kremlin wants than its predecessor. That's not to say that the prior Duma was most accurately characterized as Communist dominated. It was really anti-president and anti-Kremlin and this new legislature seems much more willing to go along with President Putin. Second, I think, Putin himself wants better relations with the West. This issue is something which is politically of little cost to him because it's really in the best interests of Russia, first of all, and second, sends a strong political message to the United States and NATO and the European Union that he's not only willing to do business, but come to an agreement on issues of mutual concern. And I think, in Putin's case, that he hopes to get economic assistance as well, so this has to be seen in the context of the broader range of bilateral issues. The third factor, I think, is the strong pressure in the United States from both Republican and Democratic candidates, that some modification in the [Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaty is warranted and the strong implication that, whether the Russians agree or not, the U.S. will go ahead and research and develop ABM technology as best they can. And fourth, President Clinton clearly wants a legacy before he leaves office, and while this is perhaps not as great a step as the U.S. administration would broadcast, it is nonetheless a step toward a reorientation of the strategic security arrangements and architecture after the Cold War."

Ratification of START-II could have significance for negotiations on another treaty, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile, or ABM, treaty. The ABM treaty bars most U.S. and Russian deployment of missile defenses, and the United States has been pushing for an amendment that would allow it to deploy a limited missile defense designed to repel a small attack by a rogue-state or terrorist. Jensen says he expects the Duma's ratification to strengthen Moscow's hand in discussions on the ABM.

"I think very much it will. Part of the bill in the Duma and the continuing Russian position has been that implementation of START reductions will take place only in the context and after an agreement on the ABM treaty and any modifications of the treaty. As of this moment, the Russians strongly oppose any changes in the ABM treaty. The question in the ruling circles in Moscow is really not whether to oppose the ABM modifications the U.S. proposes, but how best to respond in case the U.S. does take this undesirable action, which would be deploying a limited ABM system. So I think the START ratification is really part of the major bigger question of strategic balance, and it has to be looked at only in conjunction with the debate over anti-ballistic missile defenses. And there's no sign at all that there is going to be any debate, any agreement any time soon."

Jensen rejects suggestions by some commentators that START-II constitutes a unilateral disarmament for the U.S., since much of Russia's missile force is alleged to have outlived its service lifetime and is supposedly due to be scrapped.

"I think it's far from unilateral disarmament. Russia's missile force will be more or less effective, to the extent that we know, well into the next decade, 2006, 2007. If they need to, I'm certain that they can, with relatively little expense, extend the lifetime of particularly the Topol missile system. Russian military experts talk about re-MIRVing the Topol missiles (adding more warheads in contravention of existing treaties) as counter-measure to any deployed ABM system. And they talk about that as something that can be done relatively cheaply and easily."

START-II reduces the allowable number of warheads in each side's arsenal by half -- to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads. But Jensen predicts that this reduction will not have a significant impact on each side's ability to destroy the other side.

"I think it won't have very much effect at all. The important issue is balance and deterrence and the issue of 3,000 or 100 warheads has to be considered in the light of targeting and how you address strategic security issues on the other side with your force. And as long as the balance is maintained and both sides reduce proportionately and predictably, I think much of what we've seen in terms of bilateral strategic relations since the beginning of the Cold War will continue."