Prague, Jan 31 (RFE/RL) - Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, voted today to postpone debate on whether to ratify the START-II arms treaty. No new date has been set.
The vote approved a motion by the Duma's Defense Committee Chairman, communist deputy Viktor Ilyukin, who said that the treaty would have to be studied in great depth before debate could begin.
Ilyukin argued that a second look at the treaty is needed because of "drastic changes" which occurred within and outside Russia since the conclusion of the agreement. He said that this makes the treaty controversial.
The treaty was signed by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton on Jan. 3, 1993. It provides for the reduction by both countries of their arsenals of nuclear warheads to 3,500 each by the year 2003. This amounts to a cut of about 50 percent in the levels set by the original START arms treaty, which is already in effect.
In addition, Russia committed itself to scrap its large land-based missiles with multiple warheads, the SS-18s, in exchange for U.S. cutbacks in sea and ground-launched missiles and limited deployment of long-range B-52 bombers.
The treaty has been hailed as a major step toward nuclear disarmament. It was ratified by the U. S. Senate last week by an overwhelming majority of 87 to 4.
Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov have welcomed the Senate ratification and promised to press the Duma for quick ratification. But it is clear now that this will not come easily. The Russian military is said to favor ratification on both financial grounds - it will cut costs of production and maintenance - and because it will help to equalize the arms balance at a lower level.
But the treaty has run into opposition from communist and nationalist groups. Their arguments are basically twofold. First, many Russian politicians and officials have become increasingly concerned over the American interest in large-scale missile defense.
Yesterday, a Duma conference on START-II ratification said that "the U.S. has abandoned deterrent tactics for a global defense system against nuclear strikes, using strategic arms and anti-missile defense systems." This, the conference said, requires adjustments to the START-II treaty, and the development of a new "national security concept" for Russia.
Responding to this concern, Russia's foreign ministry said yesterday that the government's "approach to the ratification of START-II relies on the understanding that the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty shall stay in effect." This treaty restricted the development of missile defense.
Secondly, numerous Russian politicians appear intent to use the issue of START-II ratification to extract political and military concessions from the West. Speaking two days ago with the Russian press agency Interfax, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said the prospects for START-II ratification have been clouded by western plans to enlarge NATO to the east. He said that those issues were "closely related."
Zyuganov also said that NATO's plans for eastward expansion "violate the balance of conventional forces, destroy the achieved agreements, and raise the issue how to compensate for this." This view appears to be shared by many nationalist politicians as well.
Speaking today in Moscow, the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, reformist deputy and veteran diplomat Vladimir Lukin, said that the parliament was unlikely to ratify START-II before the Clinton-Yeltsin summit scheduled for April. Lukin said he and many of his collegues were opposed to setting a definite date for a ratification vote. He declared himself in favor of eventual ratification, and said the treaty was "very useful for Russia."
Two days ago, the Duma's speaker, communist Gennady Seleznyov, said that "it will be some time before the matter (of START-II ratification) will be taken up." In fact, as things stand now, the prospects for the ratification itself appear rather slim.