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After years of resistance, Russia’s Duma finally ratified the START II Treaty last week, thereby sending a statement that President-elect Vladimir Putin wants improved relations with Western nations rather than confrontation.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed in 1993 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1996. Ratification debates were twice about to begin in Russia, but were canceled because of U.S. and British airstrikes against Iraq in 1998 and again last year because of NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia. But throughout, the main opponents of the treaty were the Communists and their nationalist allies, who dominated the Duma.

Helping to make ratification possible this time were the losses suffered by the Communists and hardliners in last December’s elections, as well as a change of mood in Russia itself. Mr. Putin had consolidated his patriotic credentials by his harsh repression of the rebellion in Chechnya, but after his election as president March 26, he evidently decided to adopt a more accommodating policy toward the United States and other Western nations and began lining up the votes in the Duma to ratify the nuclear arms-reduction treaty.

It proved not to be difficult. The Communist Party and its allies now hold only 130 seats in the 450-seat Duma — far short of the votes need to block ratification, which required only a simple majority. In the event, the treaty passed by a vote of 288 to 131.

Despite this defeat, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov continues to rail against the treaty, saying it will “undermine our national security” and calling it “national treason.” Opponents were also by inflamed by the fact that Russia would be required to scrap multi-warhead missiles and replace them with single-warhead missiles. This, they said, will put a tremendous strain on the financially strapped country’s resources.

The government has countered by pointing out that it costs Russia some $3 billion annually to maintain its present arsenal of ballistic missiles. Under the terms of the treaty, the U.S. and Russia will cut their arsenals by nearly half: down to 3,500 warheads for the U.S. and 3,000 for Russia by 2007. For Russia, this would represent a significant savings.

Governments around the world welcomed the news of ratification. The U.S. in particular hailed the elimination of a long-standing irritant in Washington-Moscow relations.

However, a separate arms-reduction problem continues to complicate the relationship. Russia has voiced strong opposition to the U.S. program to install a theater missile defense system to protect the country against strikes by rogue states, specifically Iran, Iraq and North Korea, which would require revision of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The U.S. has conducted two tests of the system, with one failing and one succeeding, and plans another test in June before President Bill Clinton makes a decision on whether to proceed with antimissile defense.

In ratifying START II, Russia has attached a protocol that permits Moscow to take its own measures if the U.S. decides not to abide by the ABM for internal security reasons. Russia has in the past warned the U.S. that its antimissile-defense system could start another arms race — a race in which Russia is obviously ill-prepared to participate.

U.S. concern about a so-called rogue nation launching a nuclear attack against its territory is understandable. But if this significantly weakens the substance of START II, it is a poor price to pay for a problematic defense system. It has been suggested that the U.S. might be allowed to go ahead with a limited missile-defense system in exchange for permitting Russia to keep some of its multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles. The problem will be left unresolved for now, but it does leave the U.S. with a difficult decision to make. Mr. Putin has made it clear that, after the Duma’s historic step last Friday, the arms-reduction ball is now in Washington’s court.

The nuclear threat has been hanging over the world for more than half a century, and every step toward diminishing it is indeed welcome. As Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said last week, the reduction of the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons under the treaty could greatly facilitate nuclear disarmament and global nonproliferation. Certainly, the tentative talks that had already taken place on launching START III negotiations, which would mandate even deeper cuts, have been given fresh impetus by last week’s vote. Russia and the U.S. should continue to pursue the goal of nuclear-arms reduction with determination and at an accelerated pace.

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