President Clinton's refusal to visit Russia until lawmakers here ratify the START II disarmament treaty appears to be backfiring, because it deprives Kremlin reformers of meaningful contact with U.S. leaders and empowers Communist opponents to frustrate relations between the two countries.
The standoff over ratification has become all the more volatile in the past week as Russia's financial crisis has spotlighted its eroding international clout, adding salt to the wounds of defensive lawmakers who view START II as proof of their country's diminished world status.
Rather than encouraging the Duma, the Communist-controlled lower house of parliament, to endorse the treaty that has languished since its signing five years ago, the White House position is actually strengthening the anti-American contingent.
"Whenever I meet U.S. lawmakers, I ask them to . . . tell their president not to articulate statements that he will not go to Russia if START II is not ratified," the Duma's Communist speaker, Gennady N. Seleznev, told reporters this week. "If he says this once again, he may count on a postponement of the discussion of the treaty for an indefinite period of time."
Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov warned Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of the brewing anti-American sentiment in the Duma when the two diplomats met at a NATO forum in Luxembourg last week, according to Russian media accounts of their talks. Some reports suggested that the message was getting through to the White House that holding future summits hostage to Duma actions is only making the legislature all the more stubborn.
Politicians and analysts more supportive of good relations with the United States also express concern that the unspoken ratify-or-rot position of the White House is isolating President Boris N. Yeltsin and undermining his desire for a better relationship between Moscow and Washington.
"It's unclear to me why they [Duma deputies] should be entitled to set the tone for such a complex matter as bilateral relations between two world powers," said Genrikh A. Borovik, a prominent political analyst who has monitored disarmament issues since Cold War days. He described the Duma's refusal to schedule full hearings on the arms treaty as "a cheap shot" aimed at fanning anti-Western sentiments among struggling Russians.
Many other observers, especially those holding sway in the contentious Duma, cast Clinton's position on his next Russia visit as evidence of U.S. arrogance in the new world order.
"Against the backdrop of an imminent NATO expansion, the predominance of the United States in almost all types of weapons, the collapse of Russia's national economy and the continuing advancement of the U.S. . . . the proposal to ratify START II will clearly mean that Russia is getting stripped of its state-of-the-art nuclear and missile technologies," said Anatoly I. Utkin, an arms-control expert at the USA-Canada Institute and advisor to the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee.
"The White House is trying to take advantage of Russia's present weakness and inability to maintain its superpower status," said Utkin, noting that his country has neither the technical nor financial means to safely stockpile nuclear warheads after they are removed from the missiles in compliance with the arms-slashing treaty.
START II would reduce the strategic missile forces of both countries to about 3,000 warheads each, but the United States' more advanced capabilities in separation and stockpiling would allow it to maintain three times that figure, according to the Russian analysts.
Clinton's latest push for ratification of START II came at last month's Birmingham, England, meeting of the Group of 7 leading industrialized nations, now known as G-8 with the inclusion of Russia.
The Duma's response?
When newly endorsed Prime Minister Sergei V. Kiriyenko appealed to lawmakers to step up efforts to ratify START II, the Duma voted to postpone full hearings from June 9 to the parliament's September session.