Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 29

The recently named chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee suggested earlier this week that lawmakers are going to be in no hurry to ratify the START II strategic arms reduction treaty. The comments by Andrei Nikolaev, a retired Russian general who some think could emerge soon as Russia’s defense minister, also intimated that Acting President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government more generally also favor a more leisurely consideration of START II ratification. If that is true, it would seem to represent a significant shift in the Kremlin’s position on the ratification issue.

In comments made to reporters on February 8, Nikolaev said that he personally favors START II ratification, but suggested that there is no reason for Russian lawmakers to hurry their consideration of START II. Duma leaders, he added, intend to create a working group to examine both the political and military-technical ramifications of the treaty for Russia’s security. Nikolaev provided no detailed timetable, saying only that the question would be examined during the Duma’s spring session.

More to the point, perhaps, Nikolaev appeared to qualify his support for the treaty in such a way that raises some question on his real commitment to the agreement. Without elaborating, Nikolaev suggested that issues raised during U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s recent visit to the Russian capital–during which she held lengthy talks with Putin–would require further clarification before the Duma could move on the treaty. He also underscored that treaty ratification by Russia would be linked to U.S. efforts to revise the 1972 ABM treaty, and suggested that the U.S. Senate’s rejection last year of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would also be a consideration in Moscow’s looking at START II. Finally, Nikolaev said that questions related to the condition of Russia’s own strategic nuclear forces would play a role in the START II ratification debate. He was quoted in this context as saying that Russia still needs to “analyze the degree to which it is prepared–in the event of ratification–for the unconditional fulfillment of START II” (Russian agencies, February 8).

Nikolaev’s talk of the upcoming ratification hearings suggests that the lawmakers elected in December to the new Russian parliament may intend to begin consideration of the treaty almost from scratch, setting aside the considerable testimony on the accord presented to the previous parliament. His reservations over the treaty, moreover, and particularly his linking treaty ratification to the condition of Russia’s own nuclear forces, echo the sort of obstructionist tendencies which drove deputies in the previous parliament to repeatedly delay considering the treaty. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Nikolaev’s remarks on ratification of START II also seem to echo the reservations of the Duma’s Communist Party leadership. It too has made clear its disinclination to move quickly on START II (AP, Itar-Tass, January 19).

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is Nikolaev’s intimation that Putin and the Russian government also share this view. If so, that would be a significant change. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin spoke often of the need to ratify the START II treaty, and enlisted both the Defense and Foreign Ministries to lobby legislators to move forward on the treaty. Putin himself, then serving as prime minister, took a leading role in this same effort last December when he urged deputies from the previous Duma to ratify the accord before formally giving up their parliamentary seats (New York Times, December 22). That effort failed when the communist leadership blocked movement on the treaty, but Putin appeared to commit himself anew to ratification during Albright’s January 31-February 2 visit to Moscow. Indeed, Clinton administration officials have said that they are viewing Putin’s commitment to START II ratification as a key test of his leadership (New York Times, Kommersant, February 3).

Aside from its ramifications for Russian-U.S. arms control negotiations, all of this suggests that Nikolaev could indeed emerge as a significant player in Russian defense policymaking. In fact, several reports have appeared over the past week suggesting that Defense Minister Igor Sergeev has either already resigned his post, or is on the verge of doing so. Some of those same accounts suggest that Nikolaev is the man who has been tipped to fill his shoes. Those rumors were persistent enough that both Putin and Sergeev himself were compelled yesterday to deny that any change atop the Defense Ministry had occurred or was imminent (Moskovsky komsomolets, February 8; Itar-Tass, February 9; see the Monitor, February 8). With an election victory by Putin seemingly assured next month, however, rumors of personnel shake-ups in the Defense Ministry and elsewhere are likely only to increase in intensity.