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Senate Approves U.S.-Russian Treaty to Cut Some Nuclear Weapons

One lawmaker calls the deal 'flimsy.' Vote sends signal of support to Moscow at crucial time.

March 07, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday unanimously ratified a treaty that requires the United States and Russia to cut their arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons by about two-thirds over the next decade.

Since signing the treaty in Moscow in May, President Bush has presented it as a landmark of a new and friendlier era between the United States and Russia. With Russia holding a veto at the U.N. Security Council, the vote sends a signal of support to Moscow at a crucial moment in the debate over a possible war in Iraq.

Under the pact, the two nations will reduce their strategic forces from the more than 5,000 weapons each now deploys to from 1,500 to 2,200. It does not call for destruction of the weapons or for special monitoring or procedures ensuring that each country keeps its commitment.

Bush administration officials say the lack of rules shows the United States considers Russia a trustworthy partner, like Britain. They insist the treaty will lead to major cuts, noting the United States has already decided to cut its forces, because it no longer needs such a huge nuclear deterrent; and that the Russians, lacking money for maintenance, will do the same.

The treaty is "evidence that the U.S.-Russian relationship has turned the corner," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the treaty "encompassed the most dramatic reductions in nuclear [arms] ever envisioned" by the two Cold War adversaries.

But arms control advocates, including many Senate Democrats, contended that the lack of safeguards makes the pact a sort of gentleman's agreement that may not lead to large reductions. They point out that the Pentagon has already said it will move many nuclear weapons into storage, rather than destroy them, to preserve its flexibility to increase the deployed arsenal if a new threat emerges.

Democrats considered introducing amendments to prod the administration to take further steps to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both countries. Many sought to increase reporting requirements to make clear whether the arsenals were being cut, and some sought additional consultation with Congress.

But in the end, several amendments were withdrawn or not introduced, as Democrats concluded it was better to vote for what they considered a weak treaty rather than go on record as opposing a measure aimed at reducing the nuclear threat.

John D. Isaacs, president of Council for a Livable World, an arms-control group, said he was disappointed that Democrats did not introduce more of the amendments they were considering that sought to push the administration toward a more aggressive arms-control policy.

Isaacs said he believed the Democrats' half-hearted fight reflected, in part, Washington's preoccupation with Iraq.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had "many reservations" about the treaty, and believed that it marked only a small step forward. Yet, he said, "the reason I'm for this treaty is, failure to ratify [it] I believe would be read as bad faith."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a declared presidential candidate, called it "as flimsy a treaty as the United States Senate ever considered" and "little more than a series of missed opportunities."

He said it may expose the United States to greater dangers by increasing the amount of Russian fissionable material put in storage, where it is "a tempting target for thieves or terrorists."

The Russian Duma, which must also consider the treaty, is expected to approve it in the next several weeks. If that step is taken, the document will be completed in time for the next U.S.-Russian summit, which is scheduled for May in Moscow. No further action is needed in the U.S. Congress, because the Constitution gives the Senate sole authority over foreign treaties.

Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn., said the treaty's flaws mean it will be necessary for the administration, and those that follow it, to take more action to ensure that weapons are destroyed.

"This should be seen as another beginning, and not the end of the U.S.-Russian nuclear reduction effort," he said.

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