Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 237

Russia’s lower house of parliament moved yesterday to delay once again consideration of the START II strategic arms reduction treaty–this time until at least early spring of next year. The decision was not unexpected. Russian lawmakers last week said that they would take START II off the State Duma’s agenda as a means of protesting U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq. Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev underscored that angle yesterday, telling reporters that by “giving the order to bomb Iraq, the U.S. president and British prime minister raised a serious obstacle on the path to ratification of START II” (International Herald Tribune, December 23; Russian agencies, December 22). The Russian communist’s remarks dovetailed with the arguments being made by some Russian lawmakers that the United States and Britain are now responsible for any Russian delay in ratifying START II.

The Duma’s communist and nationalist majority has stonewalled consideration of the treaty for some six years, but the new Russian government of Yevgeny Primakov had appeared in recent weeks to make some headway in the effort to win its ratification. The strikes on Iraq prompted lawmakers to refuse consideration of the treaty during their current session, however, and there were calls for the issue to be excluded from the Duma’s spring session as well. Against that background, Duma Defense Committee Chairman Roman Popkovich suggested that yesterday’s decision–in which START II could be debated as early as mid-February–in fact represented an effort by lawmakers to deal constructively with the treaty issue (Reuters, Russian agencies, December 22).

For all of that, it is anything but a foregone conclusion that spring of 1999 will see the ratification, finally, of START II by the Russian Duma. Duma First Deputy speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov told journalists yesterday that including the treaty on the Duma’s spring agenda “does not guarantee either the ratification of START II or even that it will be considered by the State Duma. It simply shows that the State Duma intends to continue work in this direction” (Itar-Tass, December 22).

Indeed, the Duma’s new schedule with regard to START II ensures that the treaty cannot be considered until after a planned visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in January. She and the Russian government had hoped to launch talks on a follow-up START III treaty, but that cannot begin until START II is ratified. The latest delay in consideration of START II, moreover, could mean that the treaty will not be ratified before new parliamentary elections are set to start late next year. There seems little doubt that the approach of the elections will further politicize the issue, and that fact alone does not bode well for the ratification process.

The intransigence of Russian lawmakers on the START II issue comes despite the urgings of Russian government officials, military leaders and independent analysts inside and outside of Russia. They have all argued persuasively that START II ratification offers the only way for Russia’s rapidly deteriorating nuclear forces to maintain any sort of parity with those of the United States.