IN A WIDELY predicted victory, Vladimir Putin was elected March 26 as Russia's second post-communist president. Putin, who has served as acting president since Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation on New Year's Eve, called for strengthening the stability of the Russian nuclear arsenal and expressed support for the strategic arms reduction process in a March 31 address to Russian nuclear scientists.
Putin delivered the speech in Snezhinsk (formerly Chelyabinsk-70), one of Russia's closed nuclear cities, and stated that he would "preserve and strengthen the Russian nuclear weapons complex," though he emphasized that this did not mean increasing the size of Russia's arsenal. Referring to START II and START III, Putin also said that in order to "make our world safer and reduce the excess of weapons," Russia is "holding and will continue talks on further cuts in strategic offensive weapons."
START II has been stalled in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, for seven years, though several unsuccessful attempts have been made to bring it to a vote. Alexei Arbatov, deputy chair of the Duma Defense Committee, stated in a March 29 press conference that "if the final signal comes from the Kremlin, the Duma, I think, will easily ratify [START II and other arms control agreements] in the course of April and May."
If START II is ratified soon, it could facilitate negotiation of a START III agreement in the coming months—a prospect in which high-level U.S. and Russian officials have expressed repeated interest. Russia has proposed reductions as low as 1,500 deployed warheads, while the United States has argued for 2,000-2,500 warheads, the level proposed when Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed in 1997 to pursue a START III agreement.
However, the Clinton administration's attempts to amend the ABM Treaty to facilitate deployment of a limited national missile defense may undermine both current and future strategic arms reduction agreements. Some Russian officials have stated that if the United States violates the ABM Treaty, Russia will automatically withdraw from START I and START II. The START II resolution of ratification currently before the Duma states that U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would give Russia the right to withdraw from START II. (See ACT, December 1999.)
While Putin has hinted at possible flexibility on this issue in recent months, both he and senior Russian officials have formally stated that they are opposed to amending the treaty. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reaffirmed this position in a March 27 meeting with U.S. Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA), who was in Russia to monitor the presidential election.
U.S. officials responded with guarded optimism to news of Putin's election. "President-elect Putin has an opportunity to translate his electoral mandate into concrete steps to advance economic reform, to strengthen the rule of law, to intensify the fight against crime and corruption, and to join with us on a broad common agenda of international security, including arms control, non-proliferation, and regional peace and security," President Clinton said March 27. However, in a March 28 speech, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering noted, "The truth is that we don't yet know what kind of a president Vladimir Putin will be."
According to statements by Russian and U.S. officials, Ivanov and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will discuss issues relating to both the amendment of the ABM Treaty and further strategic nuclear reductions during meetings in Washington, currently scheduled for late April.