Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 76

President-elect Vladimir Putin won a significant, but not unexpected, political victory on Friday when the lower house of the Russian parliament voted for ratification of the long-delayed START II nuclear arms reduction treaty. The 288 to 131 vote, which came after Putin had appeared unexpectedly before Russian lawmakers to appeal for their support, crowned a long effort by the Kremlin to win passage of the 1993 accord. At the behest of both Putin and his predecessor, former President Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s Defense and Foreign Ministries had repeatedly lobbied lawmakers to approve the treaty. Neither their arguments nor Putin’s appeared any more compelling on this occasion, however. The decisive factor in Friday’s vote was the altered composition of the Russian State Duma, the result of last December’s parliamentary election in which hardline communists and nationalists lost out to more centrist parties. The communists on Friday maintained their opposition to the treaty, with leader Gennady Zyuganov calling it a “historical mistake” and “another defeat of Russia” by traitors.

START II ratification will not be finalized until the Federation Council–and Putin himself–give formal approval to the accord. That is considered a foregone conclusion, however, and Friday’s vote was clearly being portrayed by the Kremlin as a big boost for Putin on the eve of his departure for Britain and the Russian president-elect’s first trip to the West since his March 26 election victory. According to Putin, Friday’s pro-ratification vote also put pressure on the United States to move forward in broader strategic arms reduction talks. “The ball is in their court,” he said in a statement issued by the Kremlin after the vote.

Indeed, while Friday’s ratification vote was warmly welcomed in Washington, observers were split over the weekend on the question of whether the action by Russian lawmakers was likely to help or hinder Russian-U.S. arms control efforts. The best-case scenario sees the ratification vote opening the way to agreements by Russia and the United States later this year–possibly at a still unscheduled summit meeting–reducing strategic stockpiles even further. START II calls for both Russia and the United States to reduce their total deployed strategic nuclear warheads to between 3,000 and 3,500. A proposed follow-up START III accord could bring those ceilings down to between 2,000 and 2,500, or even lower if the Russians get their way.

But some analysts saw Friday’s ratification vote as a measure likely to strengthen the Kremlin’s determination to counter U.S. efforts to revise the 1972 ABM treaty and to proceed with the development of a national ballistic missile defense system–and thus as a possible impediment to future arms control negotiations. That Moscow is at the least maintaining a stiff public opposition to any changes in the ABM treaty was made clear by Putin in his Friday remarks to lawmakers. The Russian president-elect warned that Russia’s willingness to carry out the START II treaty depended upon continued U.S. adherence to the ABM treaty. Putin repeated warnings long voiced by Russian military leaders that if the United States exits from the ABM accord, then “we will withdraw not only from the START II treaty, but from the whole system of treaties on the limitation and control of strategic conventional weapons.” Russian lawmakers, it is worth noting, attached a nonbinding amendment to the START II treaty giving Russia the right to revoke START II if the U.S. violates the ABM accord (International and Russian agencies, April 14-15; New York Times, Washington Post, April 15).