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Published: Sunday, 4/23/2000

Arms agreement good for Russia

Russia has finally agreed to cut its strategic nuclear weapons by almost half provided the United States does the same and does not develop a national missile-defense system. But don't rush to dump your defense stocks. The arms race is not over.

Ironically, Russian lawmakers have done nothing but reconfirm their commitment to the arms race by ratifying the 1993 START-2 nuclear-arms reduction treaty on the condition that the United States strictly abides by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bans national-missile defense systems in the two countries.

"For Russia, the START-2 ratification opens up an opportunity to guarantee its security, on par with the United States," said Russia's President-elect Vladimir Putin in a written public statement.

That's as good as saying that Russia refuses to recognize losing the Cold War. This is hardly good news, considering Russia's renewed confrontational sentiments toward the United States.

But given the predominance of anti-American sentiment in Russia, even a conditional ratification was a hard sell. So pro-Putin media outlets hurried to put their readers at ease.

"One Missile Head Annihilates a City Such As New York, Just One of the 3,000," said the popular Segodnia daily in a headline, in reference to the number of nuclear warheads that Russia will have left after the cuts. The paper was quoting Dr. Yevgeny Velikhov, head of the Kurchatov Institute of Nuclear Energy in Moscow.

Moreover, the cash-strapped Russia benefits from the treaty far more than the United States does. Here is why:

excuse to withdraw from it should the United States start deploying such a system, which is very likely. Russia would likely come up with a response it can afford: re-equip the existing missiles with multiple individually targeted warheads to make sure they are able to overwhelm the American missile shield. This would put additional pressure on the U.S. weapons makers.

Russia's ratification of the START-2 has so far produced nothing but praise for Mr. Putin by international leaders, including President Clinton. And that's exactly what Russia needs now, given the negative publicity from the war in Chechnya. The Clinton administration is more likely to give Russia economic concessions in exchange for an appearance of a warm-up in U.S.-Russian relations as it struggles to counter the persisting criticism for "losing Russia."

"START-2 will make our people safer and our partnership with a democratic Russia stronger," Mr. Clinton predictably said in a recent statement.

The only positive thing about the Duma ratification of the treaty is that it signals a relative unity of command and stability in Russia, something that former President Boris Yeltsin failed to deliver.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.

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