Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 53

In his remarks yesterday urging START II ratification, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov argued that quick approval of the treaty by Russian lawmakers would likely serve to discourage the United States from developing a strategic missile defense system incompatible with the 1972 ABM treaty. Yet another failure by the Duma to do so, he said further, would all but ensure that Washington goes ahead with developing a national missile defense system and withdraws from the ABM Treaty. And that, he intimated, could start a new arms race which Russia is ill-prepared to wage (Itar-Tass, March 16).

Differences between the United States and Russia over START II and the ABM Treaty have become a major irritant in bilateral relations. The U.S. Senate ratified START II in 1996, but Russian lawmakers have held treaty ratification hostage to a grab-bag of international developments objectionable to Moscow. Those developments have included, at various times, NATO’s enlargement plans, threatened or actual U.S. and British air attacks on Iraq, threatened NATO military actions against Yugoslavia and recent U.S. decisions to move forward on the development of an air defense system and to seek changes in the ABM treaty.

But the Duma’s intransigence on START II has also been related to Russia’s domestic political battles and to the fact that the Russian constitution affords the parliament so little real authority. Indeed, ratification of the treaty became one of the few political levers lawmakers could exercise against the Kremlin. That fact was particularly obvious in the spring of 1998 when the Duma put off consideration of START II following the Kremlin’s sudden sacking of then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s government. Russian lawmakers have also repeatedly insisted that the government must present a viable plan to finance modernizing the country’s strategic deterrence forces before the Duma can consider START II ratification. Lawmakers and the Kremlin have frequently clashed over whether the government has managed to accomplish that task.

In an effort to take the initiative on START II, Russian lawmakers moved last fall to draft their own treaty ratification bill. The brief optimism that move inspired, however, was dashed following December’s U.S. and British air attacks on Iraq, after which Russian lawmakers again put off considering the treaty. But a series of conditions which the lawmakers attached to the treaty generated some concern among U.S. observers at the time, and could yet prove to be a contentious issue if the Duma does go on in the days or weeks ahead to ratify the current treaty document. Those conditions give Russia the right to withdraw from START II if, among other things, the United States withdraws from the ABM treaty, states not signatory to START II build up their strategic offensive arsenals in a fashion which threatens Russia’s security, or NATO moves to deploy nuclear weapons in newly admitted member states (Itar-Tass, March 16).