United States Secretary of Defense William Perry faces an extremely stiff challenge during his Oct. 16-18 visit to Moscow, as he seeks to persuade the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) to ratify a nuclear arms limitation treaty that it has done nothing about for nearly four years.
Alarm over the terms of START II itself, which would require Russia to destroy its most potent nuclear weapons system, and general wariness about US intentions in the run-up to NATO expansion, have cemented opposition to the treaty across the Russian political spectrum.
"Centrists are making common cause with the Communists on this," says Dmitri Trenin, a military specialist with the Carnegie Endowment think tank in Moscow. "I don't think Mr. Perry's chances are great."
Mr. Perry, due to arrive in Moscow on Oct. 16, is slated to address members of three key Duma committees on Oct. 17 in a closed session, hoping to persuade them to sign on to the 1993 treaty that the U.S. Senate ratified last January.
Duma members say he will face as many questions about the need for the Western alliance to admit former Soviet allies to membership as he will about nuclear weapons cuts, and that the issue of NATO expansion has soured the atmosphere for Start II ratification.
"I will ask him what kind of enemy NATO has seen recently to the East," says Alexei Podberyozkin, a member of the Communist Duma faction and deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
A major worry here is that START II requires Russia to dismantle all its heavy multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the pride of its nuclear arsenal and the only weapons system that is guaranteed to overwhelm any defense that the US might erect.
Russian arms experts are also fearful that current US research work to develop new ballistic missile defenses might lead to weapons that breach the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Such a development, if Moscow were bound by START II, would leave Russia with no credible nuclear deterrent, planners here complain.
"By 2003 [the deadline for compliance with START II warhead destruction targets], Russia would be absolutely naked before the United States," argues Mikhail Surkov, a Communist deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee. With its army in tatters and its conventional forces underequipped, undertrained, and largely unpaid, Russian strategic planners have come to feel more than ever that they must depend on their nuclear weapons to ensure the country's security.
"If our Army's levels were equal, it might be easier to talk of ratifying START II," says Mr. Surkov. "But they are not, and nuclear weapons are one of the very few military branches where we are more or less equal with the US."
At the same time, Russian arms experts also complain that the treaty is especially burdensome for Moscow, which has relied more heavily than Washington on the land-based heavy ICBMs that must be eliminated under START II.
But Duma members' reservations are not the only problem Perry will face. The Kremlin has shown little enthusiasm for the treaty recently, and did not even include START II ratification in the list of the government's legislative priorities for the current Duma session.
"The government is trying to use ratification of the treaty ... in its wider dealings with the West," suggests Mr. Trenin. "The government is happy to let the Duma negotiate with Perry, and to hold its own support for ratification in reserve as a bargaining chip in talks over NATO expansion."
Analysts here say Perry might be able to calm some Russian fears if he were to suggest some compromise over NATO's eastward expansion, postpone the date for compliance with the treaty, offer to help pay for further Russian weapons destruction, propose a "START III" treaty that would meet Moscow's concerns about the current pact, or pledge that Washington will never breach the ABM Treaty.
It is unlikely, however, that Perry will be able to do enough. "In its current form," predicts Mr. Surkov bluntly, "START II will never be ratified by the Russian Duma."