WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Russian foreign ministers, pressured by the end of George Bush's presidency and Boris N. Yeltsin's troubled hold on power, agreed yesterday to a historic treaty slashing long-range nuclear weapons by about two-thirds.
The treaty, fulfilling the two nations' most far-reaching arms control goal, opens the way to a new era focusing on containing the spread of dangerous weapons beyond the Cold War superpowers.
The START II agreement, was reached yesterday between U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei A. Kozyrev. It will be presented to both presidents today and, if approved, signed at a meeting New Year's weekend at the Black Sea city of Sochi.
The treaty is based on an understanding reached in June between Mr. Bush and President Yeltsin to cut each side's arsenal of deployed strategic nuclear warheads by more than half the level under the first strategic arms accord, or START I. The agreement also would wipe out Russia's most threatening weapons, land-based multiple-warhead missiles.
For the U.S. and Russia, the understanding means each country will wind up with between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads -- down from a combined total of nearly 24,000 in 1990.
The final treaty -- originally intended to be finished in September -- proved to be a nettlesome irritant through the fall as the financially strapped Russians demanded cost-saving adjustments and Mr. Bush was preoccupied with the election.
To wrap up the deal before Mr. Bush leaves office Jan. 20, the United States compromised on the number of missile silos Russia would have to give up and allowed Russia to keep its SS-19 missile instead of abolishing it and its silos. Russia will be allowed to replace the SS-19's multi-warhead with a single one.
That done, the language was finished in short order as the two foreign ministers worked late into Monday night in Geneva. "It clearly represents the quality of the new relationship between Russia and the United States," Mr. Eagleburger told reporters before flying back from Geneva, commending the Russian approach to the talks.
For Mr. Bush, who meets with Mr. Eagleburger this morning, the deal marks the third major arms deal in a presidency determined to seize on the end of the Cold War to lock in deep arms-control cuts.
It now falls to President-elect Bill Clinton to make the deals work in a decade-long implementation process that may prove equally as demanding as the drawn-out START saga.
Mr. Clinton said in Hilton Head, S.C., yesterday that "the treaty sounds good" and he was looking forward to seeing the details.
"I think Yeltsin wants an agreement now. He wants to keep the reform side of his agenda going forward, which requires him to continue to reduce . . . their huge nuclear military arsenal."
But implementation of START I, the foundation of yesterday's follow-up agreement, has been delayed by the failure of three other Soviet republics with nuclear weapons to both ratify the pact and the international non-proliferation treaty.
Of the three -- Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan -- only Kazakhstan has ratified the earlier pact, butit has not yet signed the non-proliferation treaty.
Ukraine, considered the key, signaled yesterday that it wouldn't ratify START I until February or March and appeared to want more U.S. help to close installations and destroy weapons.
Even Russian ratification of the pact reached yesterday is not assured, despite the presence in the talks of Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev.
Mr. Kozyrev's future as foreign minister is clouded as right-wing criticism mounts of his cooperation with the West.
Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, predicted that as long as Mr. Yeltsin retains his power and the West continues to help Russia, prospects for ratification are "very good."
But, he added, "If there is a swing back to the right, and the industrial-military complex gains power, it could be in jeopardy."
At the same time, implementing the deals on long-range weaponry, while putting to rest the nightmare of a superpower nuclear war, is just part of the arms-control challenge facing Mr. Clinton.
He takes office amid the growing danger of nuclear weaponry falling into the hands of unpredictable or unstable regimes.
During the campaign, Mr. Clinton pledged to strengthen safeguards on proliferation of nuclear technology and equipment, lead efforts toward a comprehensive test ban treaty, press more nations to sign an international agreement to curb the spread of missile technology and conclude a chemical weapons convention.
A key problem will be how to keep nuclear material from eliminated weapons from falling into the wrong hands. If nuclear war is to be prevented over the longer term, his administration will also have to work to ease the security fears of nations seeking to join the nuclear club.
Early on, the Clinton administration will face the problem of how to reorganize a bureaucracy designed during the Cold War for a new and broader arms-control agenda aimed at curbing all weapons of mass destruction as well as conventional arms.
Various studies, including one spearheaded by the State Department's outgoing undersecretary for management, John Rogers, have called for merging the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into a new State Department office charged with nonproliferation and implementing existing treaties.