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Senate Endorses Nuclear Reductions Treaty; Duma Delays

Christine Kucia

The U.S. Senate unanimously approved ratification of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) March 6, paving the way for U.S. participation in the pact with Russia to slash nuclear arsenals by roughly two-thirds over the next decade. Meanwhile, citing disagreement with the U.S. decision to enter into war with Iraq, the Russian Duma postponed consideration of the treaty March 18.

Under the treaty, signed by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in May 2002, each side will reduce its deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,700-2,200 by 2012—cutting the present deployment of 6,000 warheads in each country.

Several Democratic senators strongly criticized the treaty’s provisions during the floor debate, alleging that the pact contained serious flaws. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) called SORT “as flimsy a treaty as the Senate has ever considered.” Senators also highlighted recent Bush administration nuclear policy changes that, according to Richard Durbin (D-IL), “threaten to make nuclear weapons appear to be useful, legitimate, offensive first-strike weapons.” Even the opponents, however, concurred with Senator Joseph Biden’s (D-DE) assessment: “The arms reductions in [SORT] do not go far enough…but they are better than nothing.” The Senate voted 95-0 to recommend the treaty’s ratification.

Senate critics noted that SORT forgoes several important provisions contained in prior nuclear arms control agreements. The treaty contains no additional means of verifying the reductions that each side promises to make and does not include a schedule for achieving the reductions by the December 31, 2012, end date. SORT also does not require dismantlement or elimination of warheads or delivery systems, whereas prior treaties mandated delivery vehicle destruction. The Bush administration has indicated that it will take weapons off operational deployment temporarily or put them in storage in order to meet the treaty’s conditions.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, praised SORT, saying it is “simple, straight-forward, and gives each party maximum flexibility.” The agreement demonstrates the improved relations between Washington and Moscow after the Cold War, Lugar said, adding, “This treaty utilizes confidence-building measures based on trust and friendship…. It is a signal that the hostility of the Cold War has been buried and forgotten.”

Several Democratic senators introduced amendments to help remedy some of SORT’s perceived shortcomings. An amendment by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) required presidential consultation with the Senate prior to withdrawing from or making a substantive change to the treaty. In December 2001, Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without requesting the Senate’s approval, and critics charged the Senate should be consulted not only on ratification but also on treaty withdrawal. The amendment lost by a 50-44 vote.

An amendment from Kerry stipulated verification measures and required the United States to declare its confidence in monitoring Russian nuclear weapons deployments. Citing recent concerns over protecting nuclear weapons and materials from transfer to terrorists and adversaries, Kerry argued that “it is critical we have an understanding, in order to protect the security interests of our own country, of our own ability to monitor Russian compliance.” Lugar maintained that the measures suggested by Kerry are already included as part of the U.S.-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which provides U.S. assistance for securing and dismantling Russian weapons of mass destruction. The proposal was voted down 50-45.

These amendments were defeated after Biden, ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee, joined Lugar in supporting the resolution of ratification without further amendments. Biden justified his votes by saying that he had agreed to oppose changes in return for White House agreement to back two conditions and eight declarations the Foreign Relations Committee had added earlier to the resolution of ratification. As approved, the resolution calls on the president to report annually on U.S. treaty implementation efforts and provide an accounting of U.S. assistance to Russia to help secure its nuclear arsenal in order to meet treaty obligations. (See ACT, March 2003.)

Despite indications in early March that U.S.-Iraqi tensions would have no bearing on the treaty’s passage, the Russian Duma deferred consideration of the ratification bill until after it reconvenes April 1. Putin submitted an amended ratification bill to the Duma March 13 for approval after the lower house returned the first Russian resolution to the president with substantial amendments. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said March 26 that Russia should ratify SORT but not until “the situation around Iraq is solved through the UN Security Council,” according to the Interfax news agency.