Next step toward disarmament

By Globe Staff

When President Clinton encounters Boris Yeltsin tomorrow in Helsinki for their summit meeting, most of the issues on the agenda will be markedly different from those that defined the Cold War. There remains, however, one crucial vestige of the superpower conflict: a need to reduce further the levels of strategic nuclear missiles.

The nub of the problem Clinton will try to resolve is that the Russian Duma is refusing to ratify the START II treaty with its reductions to between 3,000 and 3,500 long-range warheads per side by 2003. The US Senate has ratified START II, and if Russia's legislators considered their country's interests rationally, they would, too.

But Russian discontent with START II is not merely a matter of prideful nationalism. The treaty eliminates the destabilizing category of multiple-warhead missiles, which constituted a large fraction of Russia's strategic nuclear weaponry. If Moscow now agrees to be rid of its multiple-warhead missiles, it faces an intolerable choice: Either accept a smaller number of strategic missiles than the United States possesses or spend money it cannot afford to build single-warhead missiles.

Sagely, Clinton and his advisers have prepared for the summit a flexible offer that would permit the Russians to come away with nuclear parity, affordable strategic security, and national pride. At the heart of this offer is the prospect of opening negotiations on a START III treaty without waiting for the Duma to ratify START II. In this manner the two sides could lower the level of strategic warheads to between 2,000 and 2,500 per side, thereby making it unnecessary for Russia to finance the building of single-warhead missiles.

Clinton is prepared to be flexible in establishing time lines for the reduction process and in removing warheads for currently deployed missiles while waiting for the destruction of silos. Resolving this security problem inherited from the Cold War will depend on Yeltsin's readiness to keep it separate from other issues such as NATO expansion and on his willingness to use his presidential powers to bring the Duma along.

This story ran on page a18 of the Boston Globe on 03/19/97.