Vladimir Putin has been running Russia as prime minister and acting president for eight months. His aura of command had much to do with his election two weeks ago. He misses no chance to show the world and his ever-eager, ever-skeptical countrymen who’s in charge. Last week he showed he can bend the legislature to his will.
On Friday, the State Duma voted 288-131 to ratify the START II treaty between the United States and Russia. This 1993 strategic-arms-reduction treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1996, cuts the number of each country’s deployed nuclear warheads from 6,000 to no more than 3,500 by the year 2007. Russia has lost the financial capacity to maintain a large nuclear arsenal. President Boris Yeltsin, his five prime ministers, and all his defense ministers and foreign ministers supported START II for that reason–and because after START II might come START III, and even deeper cuts. But for seven years, the Communist-dominated parliament refused to go along.
The Duma elected last December 19, however, is quite different from its predecessors. The Communists, who provided nearly all the votes against START II, are still the largest party. But pro-Putin deputies outnumber the Reds, and many center-right deputies who have not embraced Putin support START II in any case. Putin easily had the simple majority of the Duma’s 450 members that he needed.
The Duma’s action brought Putin a congratulatory phone call from Bill Clinton and another bucket o’ gush from Tony Blair, who is Putin’s host in London today. And ratification injects new energy into Russia’s relations with the West. Talks on START III, which could cut deployed-warhead levels to the 1,500-2,000 range, will begin this week in Geneva. But ratification has a flip side. Kremlin leaders lobbying in the Duma described ratification as a diplomatic tool that will be used to sharpen criticism of the United States for its defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and for its efforts to construct and deploy missile defense systems that violate the 1972 antiballistic missile (ABM) treaty. Russia’s diplomats can be expected to whack away on these points every time the word “Chechnya” is mentioned in polite company.
Although both parties have now ratified the treaty, it will not take effect until the U. S. Senate approves two protocols that Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin signed in 1997. One changes the date for meeting treaty targets from 2003 to 2007. The second defines differences between long- and short-range weapons in ways that could affect the relationship between the ABM treaty and U.S. plans for a national missile-defense system. The United States and Russia may need to negotiate a clearer understanding on the second point before the Senate takes up the protocols.