MOSCOW — UNITED States President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin will sign a new arms treaty this weekend that will slash the nuclear arsenals of the two former foes to levels not seen in three decades, officials here say.
For both men, politics figures as much as strategic diplomacy in the timing of this agreement on a new START II arms accord.
For President Bush, it caps a presidency whose most noted achievement is having presided over a peaceful end to the cold war. The new treaty was negotiated during the Bush administration as a rapid follow-up to the long-discussed START I treaty signed last year.
The Russian leader seeks to make his own mark in grand diplomacy, a field previously dominated by his rival and predecessor, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. This triumph, marked by the visit of a US president, offers no small diversion from what has been a difficult and damaging political year.
Since conservative opponents in Russia's parliament forced President Yeltsin two weeks ago to give up his prime minister, reform architect Yegor Gaidar, the Russian leader has been struggling to regain lost authority. He successfully fought off an attempt to purge many of Gaidar's team of reformers from the new Cabinet of Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin. And Yeltsin maneuvered to bring back key aides into new positions of authority, particularly former Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin, whom he dumped earlier in a bid to appease parliamentary leaders.
During the tumult of recent weeks, Yeltsin has repeatedly tried to reassure the West, including aid and financial agencies, that Russia's reforms remain on track. This goal seems evident as well in his desire to push through conclusion of the arms control negotiations during the last weeks of the Bush administration, avoiding an inevitable delay that would be caused by the transition to the new administration of President-elect Clinton.
Yeltsin has engaged in direct talks over the phone with President Bush at least twice during the past two weeks, followed by the dispatch of his foreign and defense ministers to Geneva this weekend for a last round of negotiations aimed at bridging remaining gaps. According to reports, the US offered compromises to seal the deal which will reduce the nuclear arsenals from current levels of more than 20,000 warheads to between 3,500 and 3,000 warheads each by the year 2003, or sooner. Black Sea signing
The two men will meet in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi Jan. 2-3 to sign the treaty. President Bush will fly there from Somalia after visiting US troops on New Year's Day.
"From the point of view of political relations between Russia and the United States, [the treaty] seems to be very useful and just in time," says Sergei Blagovolin, a prominent security analyst. "The most important aspect of the agreement is political.... We are now approaching a new era of relations when the main idea is not simply to diminish the level of military confrontation but to build cooperative relations, to establish a kind of alliance."
But this view is hardly universal. Initial reaction to the new treaty in the Russian press was far from enthusiastic. Pravda, the former daily of the Soviet Communist Party and now a flagship of conservative opposition, criticized the Russian leadership for giving away military advantage to the US. "The nuclear shield of the country, created as a result of the efforts and deprivations of the entire people, is in danger," Pravda opined yesterday. Military critique
A more in-depth critique was aired yesterday in the liberal daily, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, by Vladimir Belous, a Russian Army general associated with the Center of Strategic Studies. He argues that the treaty forces Russia to yield its most potent weapon, the powerful and accurate land-based SS-18 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) while the US will retain its highly precise Minuteman-3 ICBM and submarine-launched Trident-2 missile. Russia is compelled to shift from reliance on land-based ICBMs to su bmarine-based forces.
"One has to take into account that the naval component of our strategic nuclear forces is traditionally inferior to that of the US," General Belous writes. "That is why the shift ... from the ICBM to submarine-based missiles is an unjustified concession to the US." He adds that the change will be very costly to Russia at a time of tight resources.
Such views are widely held, from the parliament to the senior Russian military leadership. Although Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev accompanied liberal Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev to the final round of talks in Geneva this week, that does not guarantee the Russian military will fall into line, Mr. Blagovolin says. "There are a lot of difficulties in relations between Grachev and some high-ranking generals in the general staff."
The parliament has already shown resistance to this trend in US-Russian relations. Although they ratified the START I treaty earlier this winter, senior parliament members dealing with foreign affairs have strongly criticized a US-Russian agreement on control, storage, and elimination of nuclear and chemical weapons reached last summer, at the same time the outlines of the START II treaty were agreed on.
"We'll face very serious resistance on our way toward ratification of this treaty," predicts Blagovolin, "especially since the president is so much weaker now than months ago."