Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 74

After some seven years of inaction, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, appears poised at last to ratify the 1993 START II strategic arms reduction treaty. Reports out of Moscow this week indicate that Russian lawmakers will debate the treaty (for the first time) tomorrow, and that they could ratify it as well. The treaty would still have to be approved by the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, at its April 19 session, and then signed by Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin. But those are likely to be formalities. Putin would like to have Duma ratification in hand by the time he travels to London next week, and full ratification of the accord completed before Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrives in the United States for talks on April 24. Among the topics that Ivanov will discuss with U.S. officials is the scheduling of a Russian-U.S. summit meeting. Clinton administration officials hope that ratification of START II will open the way to further progress in arms control talks at any such Russian-U.S. meeting.

A quick ratification is desirable from the Kremlin’s point of view because it would strengthen Putin’s world standing at the start of his presidency and on the eve of what is expected to be an intensive series of meetings with foreign leaders. Despite repeated pledges of support for START II, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was never able to push the accord through a reluctant parliament. Putin too has made ratification a priority, but his effort has been aided by the changed composition of the State Duma since December’s parliamentary elections. Russia’s Communist Party has made clear that it still opposes the treaty, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party is also expected to vote against the accord. But Putin needs only a simple majority of the Duma’s 450 lawmakers, and is believed to have the votes in hand.

Tomorrow’s vote has apparently been keyed by an expanded meeting of the influential Russian Security Council on April 10, at which START II reportedly topped the agenda. Discussion was said to have been heated, but those supporting the treaty apparently carried the day. Also on April 10 the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee held a closed door meeting at which the Russian Foreign Minister and top generals from the Defense Ministry and the General Staff had apparently argued in favor of the treaty’s ratification. The full Duma is expected to hold additional hearings today on the treaty, at which Russian diplomats and military leaders are again expected to put the case for ratification. Tomorrow’s ratification debate, which is expected to be heated, will also be closed to the public and the Russian media (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, April 10-12; International Herald Tribune, UPI, April 12).

Russian ratification of START II, if it does occur as expected, will undoubtedly be welcomed by the Clinton administration, and there are obvious reasons for satisfaction. Yet Russian officials suggested in the past that they would use ratification as a diplomatic weapon against Washington–indeed, they lobbied Russian lawmakers for the treaty partly on that basis–and there is no reason to believe that they have altered that policy. That is, Moscow hopes to use ratification as proof to the world community of its own willingness to pursue additional arms control measures. Simultaneously, Russian diplomats feel that ratification of START II will strengthen Moscow’s criticisms of the United States both for the failure of the U.S. Senate last year to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and for Washington’s efforts to alter the 1972 ABM treaty in order to pursue deployment of a national missile defense system. The U.S. positions on these issues have generated considerable criticism around the world, including among key U.S. allies, and Moscow hopes to exploit such dissatisfaction for its own benefit. Among other things, diplomatic success in this area could help Moscow to deflect international attention away from its own brutal war in the Caucasus.