Russia OKs arms limits

START-2 treaty on nuclear cuts was signed 7 years ago

April 15, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The Russian parliament put aside its mistrust of the United States yesterday and ratified the START-2 nuclear arms reduction treaty seven years after it was signed.

The vote, which gives new life to the arms-cutting mood that prevailed in the early 1990s, was portrayed by President-elect Vladimir V. Putin as a challenge to Washington not to go ahead with the proposed anti-missile shield, which Moscow views as a step toward a new arms race.

With his military engaged in a popular but difficult war against Chechen rebels for the second time this decade, Putin also argued that nuclear arms cuts would allow Russia's defense ministry to concentrate its stretched resources where they are needed.

Parliament's decision to accept the treaty, by a vote of 228-131, after years of hostility, marks a significant turnaround and a clear endorsement of Putin's policies.

The START-2 treaty, signed in early 1993 by Presidents George Bush and Boris N. Yeltsin, requires each side to reduce its nuclear arsenals from 6,000 warheads to no more than 3,500 by the year 2007. Russia is hoping in a START-3 treaty to cut the cap to 1,500 warheads apiece, still enough to destroy any adversary.

Putin's argument to the lower house of parliament, the Duma, came down to economics. Russia, he said, cannot afford to maintain the current high levels of nuclear arms and is in no position to replace thousands of missiles that are soon to become obsolete. It would be better, he pointed out, to make a virtue of necessity by ratifying the treaty, thereby forcing the United States to make parallel cuts.

President Clinton welcomed the Russian vote. "START-2 will make our people safer and our partnership with a democratic Russia stronger," Clinton said in a statement. "It will open the door to further significant steps to reduce nuclear arms and the nuclear danger, a course that is strongly supported by the international community and has strong bipartisan support in the United States."

For years, the parliament treated START-2 with suspicion. Russia's nuclear arsenal was considered to be the one thing that ensured the country's superpower status. Russia's first war in Chechnya, NATO expansion eastward, the bombing of Iraq and the bombing of Yugoslavia, were used as excuses not to take up the question of ratification.

The parliament elected in December is much less dominated by Communists and nationalists than previous ones were. And, after his easy victory in presidential elections March 26, Putin was seen to be in a powerful position.

"He has considerable support from society, and he hasn't had time to squander that yet," said Pavel Krasheninnikov, a liberal member of the Duma.

Putin also had his top military brass lobbying for the treaty.

Yesterday, the president addressed the Duma. He said a new arms race would be "unbearable" for Russia, imposing "irrational" and "absurd" costs on society. He said the treaty would not weaken Russia's defense. And he pointed out that the principal threat to Russia today comes not from strategic missiles but from local wars within and near its borders.

A sharp reduction in the nuclear arsenal, he said, would free up money badly needed to bolster Russia's conventional forces. With the Russian army again embroiled in a nasty war with Chechen rebels, this was a point that had an impact on his listeners.

Putin said Moscow reserves the right to withdraw from START-2 if the United States violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, specifically by pursuing the missile shield known as the National Missile Defense.

Washington has argued that the missile defense is designed to thwart an attack by one of the so-called rogue states, such as North Korea, and would be useless, because of its size, in a full-scale war with Russia. Moscow finds the argument unpersuasive.

"If the United States decides to destroy the 1972 ABM treaty," Putin said, "we will withdraw not only from the START-2 treaty but also from the entire system of treaty relations on the limitation and control of strategic and conventional arms."

As expected, opposition to START-2 came from the Communists and their allies. The Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, called the vote a "historic mistake." One of his deputies, Vassily Shandybin, said there was a "fifth column" of pro-Western politicians in Moscow, "and they voted to betray Russia to the United States without even a fight."

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