Putin will come to Britain bearing gift of nuclear arms treaty

Russia's State Duma ratified a seven-year-old arms treaty with the US yesterday, enabling Vladimir Putin to bear a symbolic gift on his first trip to the West as President tomorrow. But the Kremlin leader made clear before his visit to Britain that the string attached to the present was continued US observance of a treaty that hampers Washington from developing a planned anti-missile system.

The Communists, a minority in the Duma since December's election, held out to the last against the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start-2) - which the American Senate ratified in 1996 - describing it as "capitulation to the US". But after two days of closed hearings the vote was carried by 288 to 131 with four abstentions.

Under the treaty, which applies to inter-continental rockets, the US and Russia will halve their stocks of atomic warheads to between 3,000 and 3,500 each by 2007. A Start-3 treaty, currently being negotiated, would take nuclear arms cuts even further. Mr Putin welcomed the decision to ratify, saying it would allow Russia to divert funds to its conventional forces while keeping its nuclear deterrent. The ball was now in America's court when it came to strengthening international security, he said.

Before the vote, he gave a sabre-rattling speech to reassure wavering deputies that he was not showing weakness to the West. "Ratification does not lead to our unilateral disarmament," he said. "After a decision on Start-2 is made, our nuclear deterrent forces will be able to destroy any enemy many times over, anywhere on the planet and at any moment, even if we have to fight several nuclear powers," he said.

But he also threatened that if, after Start-2 was ratified, the US pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to build an anti-missile shield, Russia would tear up all strategic agreements and pursue its own nuclear policy.

"Ratification of Start-2 will link this treaty to the 1972 ABM Treaty," he said. "When Start-2 takes effect in a package with ABM, the United States will face a choice between being obviously to blame for destroying the fundamentals of strategic stability, and giving up the deployment of a national anti-missile system."

Washington wants to build the shield, not because it fears Moscow, but for protection from "rogue" states such as North Korea and Iraq.

However, Mr Putin's insistence on sticking to the letter of the ABM Treaty may turn out to be only the opening bid in a process of trading. Privately, Russian officials say that the President cannot afford to be seen to be giving anything away now, but that he might be more receptive to American concerns later. In building a friendship with Tony Blair, Mr Putin may also see Britain, with its traditional transatlantic ties, as a bridge to the US.

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