Russia prepares to slash nuclear arsenal with US

Goaded into action by president-elect Vladimir Putin, the state Duma yesterday scheduled for this Friday a long-delayed debate on ratification of the Start II nuclear arms reduction treaty between Russia and the United States.

As Communists no longer dominate the parliament, the treaty has a good chance of being accepted, which should give Mr Putin a boost as he prepares to honour Britain with his first visit to the West, on Sunday.

Duma deputies, offended by the Council of Europe suspension last week of Russia's delegation over Chechnya, met on Monday to draft an angry response to Strasbourg. Mr Putin has urged members of the Duma's international affairs committee to be more constructive and to deal withStart II, unratified since it was signed in 1993.

"We are likely to have enough votes for ratification," said Dmitry Rogozin, international affairs committee chairman in the new Duma, where pro-Kremlin and liberal parties outnumber Communists and their agrarian allies. Advocates of ratification need a majority of 226 in the 450-seat Duma. The Communists have 130 seats.

Start II, the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, ratified by the US in 1996, would halve the number of nuclear warheads held by Russia and the US to between 3,000 and 3,500 each by 2007.

Its ratification by Russia would open the way to further deep arms cuts under a Start III treaty, which Moscow and Washington are negotiating. The US State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said ratification would be "an historic day in the history of arms control". The Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, said ratification would be a "gift to the West", adding: "But this present costs one-third of our national wealth and would undermine our national security." The ultra-nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was also full of anti-Western rhetoric, although when it comes to voting, he usually falls in behind the Kremlin.

The Communists may believe Mr Putin is pandering to the West. And it is true ratification of Start II would set a positive tone for his one-day visit to London to continue the acquaintance he began with Tony Blair in St Petersburg in March. But the West would be mistaken to think the pragmatic Mr Putin, who won the presidency last month by promising Russians he would make the world respect them, is about to give anything away to Russia's detriment.

Last month, in his first policy speech, he said that while Russia favoured arms cuts and would not build up its arsenal, it intended to keep its nuclear deterrent and make its weapons more efficient. Russia's ageing missiles need to be dismantled, and by ratifying Start II, Moscow could free money to modernise what systems remain.

There could be a quid pro quo for a constructive attitude by Russia on Start II. Ratification is likely to be accompanied by a Duma call to the US to respect the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Washington wants to amend it to build an anti-missile shield from "rogue" nuclear states. But Moscow regards the agreement as a cornerstone of world security.

Mr Putin, 47, a former KGB officer, may hope Mr Blair will act as Russia's advocate with his friend President Bill Clinton. The Prime Minister would have a chance to champion the interests of foreign investors inRussia and press for a Chechnya settlement. The trading is just beginning.