Nukes and the Russians START II ratified: Helms-caused delay endangers historic treaty in Russian parliament.

January 30, 1996

FIVE MONTHS behind a schedule that would have better served American security interests, the Senate has ratified START II, the most important nuclear arms reduction treaty in history. The pact negotiated by the Bush administration now faces an uncertain future in the Russian parliament, where communists and nationalists hostile to the United States scored important gains in December elections.

Washington's delay was the handiwork of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms, who held up the pact to force the Clinton administration to accommodate his demands for consolidation of foreign policy operations. In the end the North Carolina arch-conservative got enough of what he wanted to release the treaty from his committee and send it to the floor, where he was one of four Republicans who voted against it.

Ratification came on an 87-4 roll call with virtually no discussion -- a startling spectacle in the aftermath of long and agonizing debates over earlier nuclear arms treaties during the Cold War era. This was a clear indication that Senator Helms' objections were a lot more tactical than substantive. They needlessly endangered a treaty designed to eliminate Russian land-based multiple-warhead intercontinental missiles that could devastate this country.

Under START II, superpower arsenals once as high as 10,000 warheads are to be cut to around 3,000 each, thus strengthening the case against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Although U.S. ratification came only after the political pendulum had swung against him, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has promised President Clinton he would "work hard" to secure the approval of his parliament before the U.S. leader visits Moscow in April. This is far from assured as Russia prepares for presidential elections in June. Communist/nationalist strength is such that Mr. Yeltsin has purged many key reformers and is dragging his feet on various arms control pacts.

If Washington really wants to help Mr. Yeltsin, it should put on the back burner plans to extend NATO eastward to the Russian border. This is a development that understandably outrages the Russian populace and contradicts administration efforts to bolster the Yeltsin government financially and otherwise. It also discourages Russian cooperation in Bosnia and the Middle East. START II may have exposed Mr. Helms as a meddler, but the U.S. itself needs a more coherent Russian policy.

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