When President Clinton proposed renegotiation of the 1972 antiballistic-missile (ABM) treaty, he challenged what most Russians consider the cornerstone of the edifice of disarmament agreements constructed over the past twenty-five years. American officials were quick to say that the U.S. decision to spend $6.6 billion over six years on an ABM force was not intended to diminish Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but that of course would be the effect of American ABM deployment, whatever its intent. Talks this week in Moscow between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian officials may clarify matters, but the American move has deepened hostility in the Duma toward ratification of the START II treaty, now pending for over five years. START II would limit the number of nuclear warheads on missiles in both Russia and the United States. Its ratification would allow a new round of arms-reduction talks, aimed at deeper cuts, with potential parity at around 2,000-2,500 warheads in the period 2007-2009.

The Russian executive, and successive ministers of defense, have defended START II consistently, arguing that the country cannot afford to maintain a larger force. But Duma deputies, in particular communists and nationalists, have held up ratification to exert leverage over the United States–on NATO expansion, on Yugoslavia, on Iraq, whatever the crisis of the moment may be–as if the United States had more to gain from the treaty than did Russia.

Last week retired General Aleksandr Lebed also came out in opposition to START II, but from an entirely different angle. The treaty, he said, would cause “irreparable damage” to Russian interests by moving too slowly. Better to skip START II and negotiate a reduction to 1,500-1,700 warheads, as quickly as possible. The United States, however, wants START II ratified before it will launch new talks. As the areas of U.S.-Russian contention grow in number–the list includes Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq and NATO–the prospects for cooperation in arms reduction diminishes.