Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 229

Amid the general worsening of Russian-U.S. relations, ratification of the START II strategic arms reduction treaty made a surprise appearance on the Russian State Duma’s discussion agenda this week following a lobbying effort by government officials. According to reports out of Moscow, the day before yesterday Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov urged Duma leaders to consider putting ratification of the 1993 treaty before lawmakers during a special Duma session scheduled for December 13 (AP, AFP, Russian agencies, December 8). The special session has been scheduled to permit lawmakers to vote for ratification of the union treaty with Belarus prior to Russia’s December 19 parliamentary election.

The Kremlin and top Russian government officials have urged lawmakers for years to ratify the START II treaty, which would lower U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads each. Last December’s U.S. and British airstrikes on Iraq led Russian lawmakers to postpone consideration of the treaty, however, and the beginning of NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia this past March likewise did. But both delays appear merely to have been the most recent pretexts used by Duma leaders to avoid consideration of the treaty. In fact, domestic political considerations were as much a factor in the Duma’s earlier refusal to vote on START II ratification as any development abroad. Treaty ratification is one of the few true levers of power the lower house has under the Russian constitution, and communist and hardline lawmakers have made ample use of it in their bitter political battles with President Boris Yeltsin.

Russia’s war in Chechnya and the government’s more general anti-Western bellicosity have in recent months served to ease some of those tensions between the Kremlin and hardline Russian lawmakers. Those changed circumstances may be one factor in the most recent push by the Kremlin to win START II ratification. This began in October when Russian Foreign Ministry officials said that they would step up their efforts to win parliamentary approval of the arms control treaty. Their selling job was distinctly in keeping with the times, however. Russian diplomats said that they intended to argue that START II ratification would greatly strengthen Russia’s international standing as a proponent of nuclear disarmament. And that, they said, would boost Moscow’s efforts to present U.S. ballistic missile defense plans–not to mention its challenges to the ABM treaty–as a threat to international peace and to global disarmament. They likewise argued that Russian ratification of START II might undermine the position of those in the United States who back those twin policies.

The U.S. Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty on October 14 only increased Moscow’s determination to portray the United States as a danger to world peace. Russian diplomats both joined in international criticism of the Senate vote, and moved successfully to parlay unhappiness over the U.S. positions on the ABM treaty and ballistic missile defense into a UN General Assembly resolution reaffirming the importance of the ABM accord. The diplomatic public relations value of these moves was important to Moscow because it sought to counter increasingly sharp international criticism of Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya (see the Monitor, October 14-15).

This week’s renewed push for START II ratification appears to have been driven by the same sort of calculations. As Vladimir Ryzhkov, leader of the centrist Russia is Our Home Group, put it: “The Americans want to walk out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and are putting pressure on Russia over Chechnya. Russia needs arguments to show that we are fulfilling our obligations while Americans rudely violate theirs.” Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman and another key moderate, Vladimir Lukin, made a related (if dubious) point. He was quoted as saying that ratification of START II would “discourage the United States from going ahead with its plans aimed at undermining the ABM treaty” (Russian agencies, December 6).

For all the fanfare created by this week’s announcements, ratification of the treaty still appears to be a long shot. While some lawmakers made clear their support for START II, the communists and some hardline nationalists apparently remain opposed to the treaty. Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Baburin, for example, said that he had been unmoved by arguments for the treaty offered on December 8 by Russia’s defense minister (who said that nonratification is “politically and militarily harmful” for Russia). And the Duma’s communist chairman, Gennady Seleznev, argued that Russian lawmakers were hardly likely to approve the treaty when “the Americans are basically trying to ruin [it]” (Itar-Tass, December 6).

The ratification issue will reportedly be discussed by Duma leaders prior to the special Duma session on December 13. They will decide at that time whether to put the issue–and possibly a ratification vote–on the agenda for the special session later that same day. Apparently mindful of the embarrassment that the U.S. Senate’s October 14 rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty caused for the Clinton administration, a spokesman for the Russian president made clear, however, that the START II treaty would be put to a vote only if the Kremlin is sure of its approval. “We can’t allow the rejection of START II,” he was quoted as saying (AP, December 8).