IN early January, when President Bush wrapped up the long-sought START II treaty with Russia that provides for the most sweeping arms reductions in history, he did a gratifying but largely easy part of the job. While negotiating the treaty, Bush dealt exclusively with Russia's Western-oriented executive branch, so there wasn't much need for arm-twisting.
Now comes the hard part. The treaty has to be ratified by the Russian parliament, where START II proponents may encounter much more serious opposition than they had imagined.
Busy with the presidential transition at home, military operations in Iraq, and the humanitarian mission in Somalia, the United States didn't give much attention to a quiet but steadily evolving debate on START II that has been going on in Russia since Mr. Bush and Boris Yeltsin revealed the treaty's broad outline last June in Washington. However, this debate shows that the agreement could run into much wider and stiffer-than-expected opposition.
It is customary to believe that about one-third of the deputies in the Russian parliament support everything President Yeltsin's government does. Another third is the equally determined opposition, which is eager to kill the treaty. The rest is a fluctuating mass of deputies that may join either of the sides, depending on what they judge best.
These uncommitted deputies will decide the treaty's future; and while the opposition shows no sign of wavering, there are abundant indications that the center and even some from the Yeltsin camp are having second thoughts.
Look, for example, at the commentaries appearing in newspapers considered very close to Mr. Yeltsin. In early November, Rossiyskaya Gazeta - launched expressly to reflect the views of the Yeltsin camp after the official organ of the Russian parliament, Sovetskaya Rossia, had fallen under conservative control - suddenly published an article by arms-control expert Petr Belov that was clearly out of tune with the president and his foreign-policy team.
"Although the threefold reduction of nuclear missiles is certainly necessary and appears to be just," Mr. Belov wrote, "I dare assert that the ratification [of the treaty] will further undermine the already fragile peace." He argued the SS-24 and SS-25 ballistic missiles Russia will retain if START II is implemented have serious technical flaws that make them "more dangerous to Russia itself than to anyone else." The article recommended that Russia abandon the practice of concluding bilateral agreements with the US and instead assume an independent nuclear posture similar to that of France.
Belov's writings have attracted the attention of Komsomolskaya Pravda, another pro-reformist daily. That paper published an article he wrote insisting that the new accord was dangerous because it might invite US aggression.
Following in others' footsteps, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the most consistent voice of the liberal reformist movement, expressed suspicion over the limited scale of US arms reductions proposed under the treaty. Quoting from a Bush speech about the need for America to remain strong because of its numerous responsibilities around the world, a Nezavisimaya Gazeta commentator said he could not understand how US nuclear submarines could help solve the crisis in Yugoslavia.
Critics might counter that these are free publications merely presenting different viewpoints. This rarely happens in reality. In a society as divided as Russia's, newspapers usually speak for movements or political groups, and, therefore, opinions expressed in them could serve as an indication of political processes and debates within the respective movements.
Among sprouting Russian publications, the newspaper Krasnaya Zuezda stands apart. It cannot even pretend to be independent because it belongs to the Ministry of Defense. The Russian defense minister, Pavel Grachev, is a vocal supporter of START II. But look what kind of articles appear in his newspaper. "Is it permissible to cut our country's strategic offensive weapons to the level of 3,000 warheads?" editorialized Lt. Gen. Yevgueny Volkov. "Yes, it is. But only if the following conditions are met."
Those conditions include simultaneous cuts in nonnuclear weapons that threaten strategic offensive armaments; a ban on the development and deployment of antiballistic missile systems; and reorientation of weapons programs toward enhancement of survivability rather than destructive potential. None of these conditions are addressed in the START II treaty. Thus, General Volkov's article could be perceived as a thinly veiled protest against the accord, most likely coming from the military's top brass. Otherw ise, the article would not have made it to the paper. All of the above indicates that in his attempts to push through the ratification of the START II treaty, Yeltsin is likely to face dissent within his own ranks. At a time when the opposition is on a rather successful offensive, this dissent dims the future of the agreement.