THE START II treaty, which would reduce the current Russian strategic nuclear arsenal by more than 50 percent, is in serious trouble because of inexcusable delays in Senate approval of ratification and congressional attacks on the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) Treaty.
Prolonged postponement of the implementation of START II, signed by President George Bush in 1993, would be a major blow to U.S. security and would derail the promising progress in arms control generated by the end of the Cold War and the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Despite overwhelming bipartisan Senate support for START II, Sen. Jesse Helms has held the treaty hostage in his
dysfunctional Foreign Relations Committee for more than three critical months while he seeks to reorganize the executive branch's foreign policy apparatus. Senator Helms has prevented the Senate from exercising its constitutional responsibility to provide the president with its advice and consent to ratification of the treaty. With elections for the Duma (the lower house of the Russian Parliament) on Dec. 17, time has almost run out for the present body to take action on the treaty.
Although START II has been much more controversial in the Russian parliament than in the U.S. Senate, the necessary majority for ratification would likely have been obtained in the parliament if it had come to a vote. Despite criticism that the treaty unduly favors the United States, the Yeltsin government and the Russian military have supported the agreement, which formalizes Russian strategic parity with the United States at a much less costly level. However, given the lack of consensus, the Russian parliament could hardly be expected to take the initiative until it knew the treaty had U.S. approval without unacceptable conditions.
Moscow's principal concern about START II has been that, once it entered into force, the United States would repudiate the ABM Treaty and deploy a ballistic missile defense that would threaten Russia's remaining deterrent force. The Clinton administration's massive theater missile defense program, which Moscow warns would undermine the ABM Treaty, initially focused attention on the linkage between the two treaties. Russian concerns have been greatly intensified by the proposal of the new Republican Congress to deploy, by 2003, a multi-site, nationwide ballistic missile defense system. As a result, the Russian military in recent months reportedly has become more guarded in its support for START II. In a world of missile defenses, many Russians might prefer to reject START II and keep their large land-based, multiple-warhead ICBMS -- whose prohibition is the centerpiece of the treaty -- in order to ensure Russia's ability to overwhelm future U.S. defenses.
Whatever fate START II might have had in the Russian parliament this year, the prospects for its approval in 1996 will be less propitious.
The makeup of the new Duma is difficult to predict, but it is likely to be more nationalistic, less disciplined and even less informed on START II issues. During the first half of next year, it will subordinate ratification of START II to domestic issues in the run-up to the Russian presidential election in June. During the second half of the year, the new parliament's willingness to approve ratification will become increasingly sensitive to the U.S. presidential campaign if U.S. deployment of a nationwide ballistic missile defense system emerges as a major issue, as now advocated by presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole,
Republican of Kansas. If the United States decides after the next presidential election to deploy a nationwide ballistic missile defense system, prospects for Russian ratification of START II would be remote indeed.
Failure to bring START II into force, coupled with repudiation of the ABM Treaty, would preclude further reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals for the foreseeable future. The world at large would hold the United States responsible for this gross disregard of the political commitments agreed to by the nuclear-weapon states in connection with the Non-Proliferation Treaty's indefinite extension. As a result, the United States would lose much of its credibility as the leader of the effort to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime.
The loss of START II is not a foregone conclusion. To influence a favorable outcome, the Republican leadership must persuade Senator Helms to release his hostage in time for Senate approval of START II in this session. This approval might conceivably move a lame-duck Duma to act on START II or, failing that, would let the new Russian parliament know that strategic nuclear arms reductions have overwhelming support in the United States.
The Republican leadership must also reject the temptation to make a campaign issue out of the deployment of an unnecessary, expensive and strategically dangerous nationwide ballistic missile defense system. To do otherwise, is to accept responsibility for the loss of START II and for the resulting major setback to U.S. national security interests.
Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr. is the president and executive director of the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan group based in Washington. He formerly served as deputy director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.