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Russia: Duma Ratification Of START-II Has Implications For ABM

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russia's lower house of parliament today ratified the START-II treaty, an arms-control pact that cuts the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads in half. Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow that the ratification could have implications for negotiations concerning another arms control treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Moscow, 14 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- START-II -- by Russia's State Duma came as no surprise.

President-elect Vladimir Putin had made his wishes perfectly clear -- even showing up at the debate. And as the Duma is dominated by the Unity faction of his supporters, the treaty passed by a margin of more than two to one (288-131). Russia's upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to ratify the treaty before the end of the month.

Putin was pleased:

"The decision made today by the deputies is absolutely right. It corresponds completely with our national interest, with Russia's national security, and gives us the possibility, not only to keep our nuclear shield, but also to modernize it and use our precious resources to maintain our conventional weapons, and make our armed forces more capable and more battle-worthy."

The Communists were the only deputies to massively oppose the ratification. They said the treaty would strip Russia of its last defenses against a U.S.-dominated West that is trying to impose political and economic hegemony.

The START-II treaty requires the U.S. and Russia to cut the number of their nuclear warheads in half, to between 3,000 and 3,500. The treaty was signed in 1993 and ratified by the U.S Senate in 1996. It would have been ratified by the Duma years ago, Russian deputies say, had it not been for U.S. air strikes against Iraq in 1998 and against Yugoslavia in 1999 -- both of which coincided with Duma votes on the treaty.

During the debate today, pro-ratification Duma deputies argued that the limits set forth in the treaty simply represent the real state of Russia's defenses.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, said economic problems force Russia to decrease its missiles to START-II levels anyway.

"This treaty is to our advantage because Russia is already disarming itself unilaterally. The START-II treaty is a treaty about American disarmament. It is time for everyone to understand that."

The head of the pro-Putin Unity faction, Boris Gryzlov, said (on ORT television) that reducing nuclear warheads is in line with Russia's new defense strategy, which emphasizes the development of conventional arms for use in conflicts such as Chechnya.

Some Russian experts, however, are uncertain about the advantages of ratification for Russia. The English-language Russian daily "Moscow Times" quoted analyst Ivan Safranchuk (of the Moscow-based Center for Policy Studies) as saying that any deep cuts in Russia's nuclear arsenal will harm Russia's ability to deter a U.S. attack. He said that, with a reduced arsenal, Russia may not be able to ensure destruction of the United States if the U.S. deploys a missile defense system.

Sergey Rogov is an expert on arms control issues and head of the U.S. and Canada Institute. He tells RFE/RL that the importance of START-II goes beyond technical defense issues.

Rogov says the treaty's ratification has important political value for Russia's status on the world stage.

"The United States, the most powerful and biggest power in the world, considers itself equal to Russia in the military-strategic sphere. Neither China, nor Germany, nor Japan is recognized in this way by Washington. So in addition to the military-strategic aspect, the political aspect also plays a big part, linked to Russia's status as a great power."

Echoing the Russian theme that the West has a discriminatory attitude towards Russia, Rogov says that in the current climate of tension, the ratification is a goodwill gesture from Putin to Washington.

The key question, he says, will be whether the U.S. will still go ahead with its plans to deploy a limited missile defense. The U.S. wants to amend another Cold-War era treaty, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM to allow a limited defense that would protect the United States from a small missile attack such as could come from pariah states like North Korea. Russia is opposed to modification of the ABM treaty. Rogov said Russia will closely watch the U.S. reaction to Russia's START-II ratification, to gauge the West's intentions on the ABM issue.

"[Putin] wants to re-establish partnership relations with the West. And the problem is what the West's reply will be. Will the West reply with similar steps that will make it possible to reach a compromise on economic issues, on regional issues, and on disarmament control. Or will Russia's steps be interpreted as proof of its weakness -- that since Russia ratified START-II, the United States can [without risk] decide to deploy an anti-ballistic missile defense system."

Leaving little to chance, the Duma attached several conditions to ratification of the treaty. Two conditions are based on 1997 agreements between Russia and the U.S. that postpone the reduction of warheads until 2007 and commit the two sides to upholding the ABM treaty. The third condition declares that START-II will be void if the U.S. deploys a national missile defense.

Yet despite the strong rhetoric, some analysts say there is still room for negotiation on the ABM issue. Aleksei Arbatov, one of Russia's most respected foreign policy experts and the deputy chief of the Duma's Defense Affairs Committee, says Russia could soften its stance on missile defense in exchange for other concessions because if it does not, it may have to stand by and watch the ABM treaty die.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, Arbatov says, simply wants to amend the ABM treaty. But many Republicans in the U.S. Senate would not be unhappy to kill the treaty altogether. It may be in Russia's interest to negotiate before Clinton leaves office next January.