THE stakes are extraordinarily high as the United States Senate and Russian Duma prepare to launch debate on the START II treaty.
In the coming weeks, the two bodies will decide whether to ratify an agreement that would substantially reduce US and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Their deliberations will also bear heavily on the future of the nonproliferation treaty, scheduled for review in April, that for 25 years has helped contain the spread of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear states.
''The nuclear powers have to demonstrate that they are reducing their nuclear stockpiles,'' says Joseph Cirincione, executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. ''That's the kind of progress the non-nuclear states are looking for.''
The START II treaty, which calls for the elimination of ''heavy'' and multiple-warheaded intercontinental ballistic missiles, got a major boost two weeks ago when Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced support for the treaty.
With other Republican leaders in the Senate also on board and nearly all Democrats in favor, the 68 votes needed for ratification appear all but assured.
On the Russian side things will be more complicated. A senior Clinton administration official says ratification by the Russian parliament, the Duma, appears a ''realistic'' possibility. But other experts are not so sure.
Unfair for Russia?
Many Russians believe START II imposes an unfair burden on them since it cuts land-based missiles with multiple warheads, the heart of the Soviet offensive force, while preserving submarine-based missiles with multiple warheads, the heart of the US offensive force.
The debate over START ratification could also be affected by other issues between the two nations.
At a time when the US is pressing for the expansion of NATO to include several former Soviet republics, planning cuts in economic assistance, and criticizing Moscow for waging war in Chechnya -- in short, as Russia risks being isolated by the outside world -- many Russians are reluctant to make deep cuts in their nuclear arsenal.
''Expanding NATO may not look like an entirely benign action to someone in Moscow who's concerned about Russian security,'' says Jack Mendelson, deputy director of the private Arms Control Association, in Washington.
US officials, some of whom have traveled to Moscow to make the case for ratification, are confident they can address most of Russia's concerns. Their main argument is that since hard times will force Russia to make cuts in its nuclear force anyway, Russia will have everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing it under arrangements that are symmetrical and that eliminate the most destabilizing weapons.
What the US can't address is the serious political disarray in Moscow that has been exacerbated by the fighting in Chechnya and that has undercut Russian President Boris Yeltsin's authority in parliament at a crucial time in the arms control process.
''The Duma appears intent on punishing Yeltsin and using whatever vehicle comes along,'' including START II, notes Mr. Cirincione.
''Under the circumstances the question is, is there a majority for anything backed by Yeltsin in this Duma?'' Mr. Mendelson asks.
START II, along with START I, which came into effect last December, would slash US and Russian nuclear arsenals by two-thirds. Each side had more than 11,000 warheads before the START process began.
By the year 2003 at the latest, when START II would be fully implemented, each side would have a maximum of 3,500.
Both in Moscow and Washington, the imminence of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference has added a degree of urgency to the discussions about START II.
The US and Russia are both eager to persuade nonnuclear states to agree at the Geneva conference in April to an indefinite extension of the NPT. But that will be difficult unless the nonnuclear states are convinced that the nuclear ''haves'' are serious about their obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.
The expeditious ratification of START II would send a positive signal by clearing the way for further arms-reductions talks.
The NPT requires nonnuclear states to forswear nuclear-weapons programs and to open peacetime nuclear facilities to international inspection.
It preserves the monopoly of the five states that had nuclear weapons when it was signed: the US, the Soviet Union, France, China, and Britain. India, Pakistan, and Israel are also assumed to have nuclear weapons.
To strengthen its case for NPT extension, the Clinton administration is seeking agreement among the five declared nuclear powers that they will stop production of fissile material for nuclear bombs. China has so far declined to go along.
Other nations' roles
The START II treaty was signed in January 1993 by President Bush and President Yeltsin.
The way was cleared for ratification when the parliament of Ukraine agreed last year to sign the NPT and turn over its arsenal of nuclear weapons -- acquired when it was part of the Soviet Union -- to Russia.
Two other former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan and Belarus, had previously ratified the NPT.
At their last summit, in September, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin talked of exchanging START II ratification documents at their next summit, prior to the conclusion of the NPT review conference.
But White House officials now say Clinton is unlikely to accept an invitation to visit Moscow in May, in part because of the Chechnya conflict.