It has been gathering dust in history's anteroom for seven discord-filled years, but the last cold-war-era nuclear-arms accord looks almost certain, finally, to be passed into law today by a closed session of Russia's parliament.
But instead of the triumphant end to superpower rivalry envisioned when former Presidents Boris Yeltsin and George Bush signed START II back in 1993, its ratification by the Duma, or lower house, will appear more like the opening shot in a fresh US-Russian strategic confrontation.
"There is absolutely no sense in ratifying START II at this stage," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense expert in Moscow. "That treaty is dead on arrival."
While the US Senate approved the accord in 1996, successive Russian parliaments have dug in their heels and refused to endorse it. The treaty compels the nuclear heavyweights to halve their strategic arsenals to 3,500 ballistic missiles each by 2007. The issue was pulled from the Duma's agenda in 1998, because of the American bombing of Iraq and again last year, in response to NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia.
But as President-elect Vladimir Putin begins a charm offensive to ease acrimony with the West over Russia's brutal six-month-old war against breakaway Chechnya, he needs a potent symbol of Moscow's good intentions. Experts say the Kremlin wants START II ratified before Mr. Putin leaves for Britain on April 16, on his first foreign visit as Russia's leader.
"Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, the new president enjoys good relations with the Duma," says Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute of Canada-USA Studies in Moscow. In last December's parliamentary elections, Unity, a pro-Putin party, captured a commanding portion of the Duma's 450 seats. Together with the liberal Yabloko, some centrist groups, and the pro-Western Union of Right Wing Forces, they should easily muster the majority needed to pass the measure.
Opposition to the treaty remains strong in some quarters. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov says it "will completely destroy Russia's national security, and cost a third of our national wealth just to implement it." Many Russian academics and military experts also seem worried that the arms-control process has run off the rails. "The problem is that START II has been delayed for so long it is no longer the treaty we need," says Mr. Rogov. "Ratifying it now is just an expression of goodwill that can do little to counter the danger that the whole framework of nuclear-arms control could be coming apart."
Worries of revived 'star wars'
At the heart of the problem, Russian experts say, are US intentions to build an antiballistic missile-defense system to guard against rogue nuclear powers or an accidental Russian missile launch. The idea of comprehensive missile defense was first floated by President Reagan in the 1980s. Dubbed "star wars," it was derided by many as an astronomically expensive and technically unfeasible scheme.
But technology has made huge strides in the past decade, and American military planners now say effective regional, or point-defense systems may be quite workable. President Clinton is expected to announce a decision this summer on whether to proceed with a plan that involves deploying powerful radars and as many as 100 interceptor missiles in Alaska by 2005.
Russia has warned repeatedly that the proposal could undermine the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, the cornerstone of all subsequent arms-control agreements. That deal established a mutual and equal "balance of terror," giving both sides an incentive to negotiate controls on offensive nuclear arsenals.
"If the US breaks out of the ABM accord, START II will obviously become null and void," says Vladimir Baranovsky, an expert with the Institute of International Relations in Moscow. "Russia cannot afford to match the US, either financially or technologically, by building its own missile defense. So it would have to deploy much larger numbers of nuclear missiles. A whole new arms race would begin."
Thirty years of superpower nuclear-arms-control efforts created a sense - very much alive in Moscow today - that Russia is the strategic equal of the US. An American breakout from the ABM Treaty, by building an effective missile defense, could shatter that impression.
"The United States is aiming for world hegemony, and this necessarily means destroying the arms-control system as it exists," says Vladimir Volkov, a Communist member of the Duma. "If we ratify START II now, they will only make us look like fools in a few months when Clinton announces his antimissile plan."
An aide to a member of the Duma foreign affairs committee, who asked not to be named, said parliamentary leaders have decided to pass a separate resolution today, linking Russian compliance with START II to Washington's continued adherence to the ABM Treaty.
Analysts say the Kremlin's strategy in pressing the Duma to pass START II is to ensure American hawks have no excuse to junk the ABM Treaty. The Russians even hope that the next American president may move to negotiate a START III deal with Moscow, which would envisage slashing offensive arsenals to no more than 1,500 nuclear warheads on each side.
"The arms-control process is a major source of Russian prestige, and we want to keep it going," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "But there are practical considerations as well. We simply cannot afford, in straight economic terms, to maintain our nuclear missile forces even at the START II level. They will continue to shrink whether there is agreement or not."
But the US is unlikely to accommodate an increasingly plaintive and beleaguered Moscow. "There is a serious danger that START II will collapse almost immediately" says Rogov. "That may lead to dramatic new frictions between Russia and the United States."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society