On the surface, Russia's recent arms-control initiatives seem to be gestures of goodwill from the country's president-elect, Vladimir Putin.
By ratifying START II, and in all likelihood approving the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty today, Moscow has done more on paper in days than it previously did in years.
But, as more of the implications become clear, analysts here say the recent moves could back the US into an uncomfortable corner where no side can win.
"This is an offensive diplomatic move," says Joseph Cirincione, an arms-control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It puts the nuclear ball back in the US court."
Last week, the Russian Duma, or lower house, overcame seven years of squabbling and voted in favor of START II, which would require the US and Russia to lower their number of nuclear weapons from 6,000 to 3,500 by 2007. Today, the Duma is set to vote on the test ban treaty, the same measure the US Senate rejected last year.
Immediately, the measures will put the pressure on the US. Talks next week in New York will review the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the long term, the moves are likely to put the US into a bind. All the major arms-control treaties will be tied together, yet President Clinton, facing a hostile Senate, may be unable to act.
Moreover, analysts say, it appears unlikely the US will be able to amend a third agreement, the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The US needs to change it to build a national missile-defense system.
"This puts a lot of pressure on Clinton not to take any new actions on arms control," says Mr. Cirincione.
Senate's stumbling blocks
The problems stem from protocols that the Russians attached to START II. They make the accord difficult for the US Senate to approve. Essentially, the Russians say they will not stick to START II unless the US sticks to the ABM treaty. And the protocols, which were approved by Mr. Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1997, make the ABM treaty multilateral, drawing in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan, along with Russia.
"The idea that the Senate would vote on [all of these protocols] is a nonstarter," says Baker Spring, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
If Clinton cannot get the Senate to approve START II, as was the case with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it will make it hard for him to go ahead with the controversial national missile-defense plan, say experts.
National missile-defense, a system in which interceptors try to shoot down incoming antiballistic missiles, would provide a shield from attack by rogue nations, US officials say.
But the Russians, along with the Chinese, oppose the plan because they say it would limit the ability of their missile arsenals to act as a deterrent against the US. The Europeans oppose the plan, because they say it would trigger a new weapons buildup.
Furthermore, national missile-defense technology is still in the development stages. It will be tested one more time before Clinton can decide whether to deploy it.
For Clinton, much will ride on a June summit he has planned with Mr. Putin. It is expected that he will discuss, among other topics, the ABM treaty and further nuclear-weapons reductions.
Missile defense: At what price?
For arms-control advocates, the concern is that Putin and Clinton will be facing an all-or-nothing scenario, in which the two countries will either work together, or suspend crucial arms-control measures.
"This is a very critical point in international security and US nuclear policy," says Spurgeon Keeny, the president of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
An increasingly likely scenario is that Clinton will have to postpone a decision on national missile-defense and leave it up to the next administration, analysts say.
Republicans, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush, tend to favor a faster deployment, even if it is at the expense of arms-control agreements.
Vice President Al Gore, on the other hand, has taken a wait-and-see approach, much like Clinton. "This is an unintended mess," says Daniel Goure of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society