LONDON -- Russians, too, are electing a president. It's no comfort to the West, so long as Russia remains nuclear-armed and the choice is between the resurgent communism of Gennady Zyuganov and the increasingly strident nationalism of Boris Yeltsin. Both appear to agree that ratifying the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 2) can be postponed until the back of beyond.
We thought the Cold War was over. But the fact is, as Fred Ikle, under secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, recently warned, ''Russian strategists continue to keep part of their forces on hair-trigger postures to enhance deterrence against an implausible U.S. surprise attack. U.S. military leaders likewise keep some of their forces on continuous alert, feeding the arguments of Russian planners that their missiles must be ready for launch at a moment's notice.''
For the Russians there was a financial incentive in implementing the first START agreement, but there is none for START 2. Washington could change that, but in a presidential campaign it is not likely to do so.
START 1 was signed in 1991 and immediately jeopardized by the break-up of the Soviet Union that year. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, newly independent, retained large parts of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Through an adept mixture of pressure and financial aid, Washington and Moscow jointly overcame the obstacles.
The 1993 START 2 agreement lacks the triple pressures on Moscow to get nuclear weapons out of the hands of former members of the Soviet Union, maintain aging missiles and recognize that the quicker missiles are scrapped the less costly it will be.
Cheap and useful
The rapid deterioration of Russian conventional forces raises the value to Moscow of nuclear weapons as a cheap and useful defense option. Further, American financial aid for nuclear reductions has been tardy and mostly directed to U.S. contractors. The two factors combine to feed the rhetoric of nationalist-oriented politicians in the Russian parliament.
Mr. Yeltsin had planned to put the ratification on a ''fast track'' in the summer of 1993. That was sabotaged by the (later deposed) Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov. Meanwhile in Washington, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., managed to hold up ratification in the U.S. Senate until very recently.
These delays gave time for new complications to emerge. Even reformist voices in Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko party now want to postpone ratification until the disputes over conventional forces in Europe and the expansion of NATO are resolved.
Perhaps the best hope, even if the Communists don't win the presidential election, is that the Russians will implement the treaty, without formally ratifying it. Some observers are relatively sanguine, pointing out that there is no money in Moscow for a new military build-up. Older weapons will continue to be retired faster than new ones can be produced.
But without START 2 there can be no START 3 and, perhaps more important, without superpower disarmament, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and the other would-be nuclear powers will shun the non-proliferation treaty. The stakes are as high as they come.
Washington must provide financial demilitarization assistance, even absent a ratified treaty or a satisfactory verification regime. U.S. politicians must stop irresponsible talk about abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. And the West in general should follow Chancellor Helmut Kohl's lead in making it clear that NATO's enlargement eastward is indefinitely postponed.
To miss a once-in-the-nuclear-age opportunity for deep arms reductions would be unforgiveable. The money and political will necessary to encourage Russia to make its promised cuts now is peanuts compared with the resources that would be needed to safeguard the West if there were a new nuclear-arms race.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.