U.S. Proposes Deeper Cuts in Nuclear Arms With Russia
The New York Times March 9, 1997

MOSCOW -- The United States has told the Kremlin that it is prepared to negotiate deeper cuts in long-range nuclear arms in an effort to ease Russian fears that the West seeks military advantage.

The American proposal could lay the basis for an agreement on the goals of future arms talks at the summit meeting in Helsinki this month between President Clinton and President Boris N. Yeltsin.

It is also intended to prod Russia to ratify the Start II treaty. Signed in 1993, that treaty has languished in the Russian Parliament because of resistance from hard-liners.

"We are trying to achieve guidelines for Start III," an American official said, referring to a future agreement mandating additional cuts in long-range armaments. "It would make clear that we are prepared to go to lower levels and, thus, obviate the Russian concern that Start II is the end of the road."

The American proposal envisions reductions to a level of 2,000 to 2,500 nuclear warheads for each side. American officials would like to announce negotiating guidelines spelling out the main provisions of a future accord at the Helsinki meeting. But the talks have been complicated by disputes over the testing of antimissile systems and NATO expansion. Timing has also been an issue, as the United States says a Start III accord must be preceded by Russian ratification of Start II.

Guidelines for a future arms agreement were discussed here on Thursday by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and senior Russian officials. Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov plans to go to Washington next week for further talks.

The flurry of high-level diplomacy over nuclear arms proposals recalls the days of the cold war and reflects the new strains in Moscow's dealings with the West.

When it was signed, the Start II agreement was hailed as the cornerstone of a new Russian-American relationship. The agreement required each nation to reduce the number of its warheads to a level of 3,000 to 3,500 by 2003. Russia and the United States had more than 10,000 warheads each in the late 1980s.

But Communist and nationalist members of Parliament here assert that the treaty took advantage of Russia at a time of weakness. The Pentagon's plans to test limited antimissile defenses have also been denounced here as an effort to gain strategic superiority. Even foreign investment has come under attack in Parliament as a scheme to gain an economic stranglehold on Russia.

Aleksei Arbatov, a member of Parliament from the liberal Yabloko faction, cited two additional reasons the Start II accord has bred such suspicion.

First, he said, support for the treaty has been hurt by the Yeltsin government's failure to outline a program for modernizing Russia's strategic arsenal. "The second problem," he said, "is NATO expansion to the East."

Still another reason has to do with the terms of the agreement itself. Members of Parliament complain that Russia cannot keep pace with the Americans under the treaty without a costly restructuring of its forces.

Specifically, they argue, staying even with the Americans under the terms of the accord would require building hundreds of new single-warhead, land-based missiles at the cost of tens of billions of dollars. More cost-effective ways to maintain parity are not available because the Start II treaty bans land-based missiles with multiple warheads. And beyond that, Russia's bomber force is in poor shape.

The ban on land-based missiles with multiple warheads is widely applauded by experts as a important step to reduce the risk of war. But such concerns are lost on a Communist-dominated Parliament, which sees nuclear weapons as a last vestige of Russia's former superpower status and a way to compensate for the disastrous decline in Russian conventional forces.

The United States, in its Start III proposal, tries to meet the Russian concerns by committing itself to negotiating further cuts. The lower level of forces envisioned under Start III would enable Russia to maintain general parity in nuclear arms with Washington at far less cost.

"Under Start III, the Russians could meet the numbers without a major new program," said Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr., president of the Arms Control Association, a private group based in Washington.

Whether negotiating guidelines can be worked out before the Helsinki meeting, however, is unclear.

Many Russian experts, aware of their country's limited negotiating leverage, urge delaying Start II ratification until the United States assures Moscow that it will not seek additional leeway under the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty to test new defensive systems. But developing and testing limited antimissile systems is an American goal.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin also tied ratification of Start II to Moscow's opposition to NATO expansion last month. But NATO says its decision to expand eastward to include former Soviet bloc nations, is irreversible.

The prospects for new Start III negotiations depend on Washington's success in persuading Russia to let go of these linkages.

Washington has also insisted that a Start III accord cannot be completed unless Start II is ratified. Talks are being carried out on the precise timing of Russian ratification of Start II, the drafting of negotiating guidelines for a follow-up agreement, and the negotiation of the Start III treaty itself.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company