Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 59

Russian lawmakers appeared to take a small step toward ratifying the START II strategic arms reduction treaty on March 21 when the Russian Defense Ministry held a closed door meeting on the treaty with members of key parliamentary committees. Reports said that the Russian Defense and Foreign Ministries used the meeting to lobby members of the State Duma committees on defense, foreign affairs and security for an early ratification of the long-stalled pact. “Representatives of the foreign and defense ministries and other agencies expressed a unified opinion in favor of the fastest possible ratification of the accord,” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said after the meeting. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who attended the Defense Ministry meeting, was quoted as saying that ratification of START II “would be in the interests of guaranteeing the national security of the Russian Federation” and would also “open the way to the beginning of official negotiations between the Russian Federation and the United States on further reductions in strategic offensive armaments under a START III treaty” (AP, AFP, Russian agencies, March 21; Reuters, March 22).

START II was signed by Russia and the United States in 1993 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1996. But Russian lawmakers have found a seemingly unending series of pretexts–some related to domestic political developments and others to problems in relations between Russia and the West–to delay consideration of the treaty. Last December’s parliamentary elections, which weakened the Communist faction which had been most strongly opposed to the Start II document, raised new hopes that ratification might finally be in sight. The chances for ratification were further boosted on February 26, when Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin urged lawmakers to approve the treaty during this spring’s Duma session. Since then, the Russian government has kept up a strong push for ratification. The Kremlin has also used this support for START II to help improve ties with Washington, which badly wants to see the treaty ratified.

That the Russian Communist party may be easing its own long opposition to START II was suggested earlier this month when the communist speaker of the Russian Duma, Gennady Seleznev, said that START II (and the possible follow-up START III accord) were not a threat to Russia’s security and might be passed by the current legislature (AP, Itar-Tass, March 4).

For all of that, however, ratification seems still to be anything but a done deal. In remarks of his own on March 21, for example, the influential chairman of the Russian Duma’s Defense Committee warned that Russian security interests must be respected before the Duma can move forward on START II ratification. According to Andrei Nikolaev, a retired general and a former head of Russia’s border forces, “there are in general no opponents to ratification of the [START II] accord, there are opponents of the failure to respect Russian national interests.” He apparently did not elaborate, but some Russian opponents of the treaty have in the past said that the Kremlin must first commit credibly to a strengthening of Russia’s own strategic forces before lawmakers will ratify START II.

Ratification also continues to be threatened by Russian concerns over U.S. efforts to revise the 1972 ABM Treaty and by U.S. plans to deploy a national ballistic missile defense system. In remarks to the press on March 21, for example, Russian Colonel General Leonid Ivashov underscored the Defense Ministry’s continued strong support for an early ratification of START II by Russian lawmakers. But Ivashov, who is among the Russian military’s most outspoken and notorious hardliners, suggested that Russian adherence to START I, START II and any follow-up START III treaty would be valid only if the ABM treaty is preserved. The Russian Foreign Ministry has long attempted to use precisely these concerns to convince lawmakers to ratify START II. A Foreign Ministry source was quoted on March 21 as arguing that Russian ratification of START II could influence President Bill Clinton’s decision–expected sometime this summer–on whether the United States will go forward with its national missile defense system.

One possible outcome of this Russian debate is that START II will indeed be ratified this spring, but lawmakers will choose to attach a long string of amendments and conditions to the approved treaty. This was suggested yesterday by one Russian Duma member and leading defense expert. Aleksei Arbatov said that one of the many provisions likely to be attached to the START II treaty would be one that calls for Russia’s denunciation of the treaty in the event that the United States withdraws from the ABM treaty (Itar-Tass, March 22).

It is unclear precisely how the Russian Duma will proceed with the treaty in the wake of the March 21 hearings. One Russian lawmaker said earlier this month that the treaty would now go for consideration to the three relevant Duma committees, and might also be considered at a joint meeting of the three committees. Their determinations will then be passed on to the Duma Council, which will make the ultimate decision of when and whether a ratification vote will be held. Discussion by the full Duma of Start II ratification could occur sometime in April, he said (Itar-Tass, March 3).