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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

START II: Parity Paradox

The only Russian-American rivalry at this weekend's arms-cutting summit was over which leader could produce the most dramatic superlatives to describe the accord.


"A Christmas present for the world", "The treaty of the century", "An achievement for all mankind", -- the cliches rolled off the presidential tongues.


Both men were right. After twenty-five years of superpower negotiations, START II undoubtedly marks the biggest reversal in the nuclear arms race that has ever been achieved.


Why then was there something flat about it all? Why does the prospect of a two-thirds cut in the two side's nuclear arsenals seem almost irrelevant?


One reason is that the East-West confrontation ended more than a year ago. Weapons which were once the linchpin of each superpower's security now look like dinosaurs, huge monuments of high-tech ironmongery which serve no useful purpose.


The wonder is not that so many weapons will be dismantled, but that so many will remain, and even then it will take another decade, until the year 2003, before each side comes down to its permitted total of 3, 500 warheads. That total is absurdly high.


As President Boris Yeltsin said, in answer to a skeptical Russian questioner at his joint press conference with George Bush, Russia and the United States will still end up with more warheads than any other nuclear power. and if the new threat comes from Third World rogue countries which may or may not have acquired nuclear weapons, 7, 000 Russian and American warheads are more than enough.


In spite of all the fanfare this weekend, START II demonstrates that neither country has yet embraced the concept of minimum deterrence. For Russia, as it struggles to implement economic reform, this is a particularly painful omission.


By continuing to insist on parity of missile numbers with the United States, Russia is implicitly maintaining the superpower value system of the old Soviet Union. After all, the great "achievement" of Brezhnev's foreign policy in the 1970s was the attainment of missile parity with the United States.


In terms of the old East-West rivalry, and under the logic of the Cold War, this was an important advance. But the achievement was bought at a massive cost, and when the Reagan-Bush administration deliberately accelerated the arms race in the early 1980s, the inherent contradictions of the policy broke asunder. The Soviet economy could not afford it any longer. Perestroika was in part the result.


Boris Yeltsin should accept this publicly. As long as he continues to argue by the logic of parity, his conservative critics in Parliament and elsewhere will find it easy to attack him. It is true that START II is implicitly based on the fact that Russia is no longer a superpower. By agreeing to give up all his heavy land-based missiles with independently targetable warheads, the SS-18s, Yeltsin is abandoning the weapons which gave Moscow the most reliable guarantee of a nuclear second strike.


Even if the intention is to switch resources towards submarine-launched missiles and mobile single-warhead missiles on land, on the grounds that they are less vulnerable to a preemptive American attack, Russia is a long way behind U. S. technology in this field. The paradox of START II is precisely this: By moving toward a parity of force structures between Russia and the United States, Russia is dooming itself to an imparity of results. It is joining a race where it is a long way behind. Yeltsin's conservative opponents know this, which is why they are claiming he has betrayed Russia's interests.


Yeltsin's best defense is to change the terms of the debate and admit that Russia has abandoned the attempt to keep up with the United States. Instead of arguing in the old language of missile numbers and parity, he should remind his critics that Russia is not the same as the Soviet Union, it is a shrunken country in the midst of a profound economic revolution. Its security is not threatened by foreign powers, but by domestic political instability, the danger of a break-up of its federal structure, and the ethnic wars already lapping at its southern frontiers.


No amount of nuclear weapons can defend against these threats. Over the next few months Russia's priority should be to protect itself from the same kind of implosion of its constituent republics as befell the Soviet Union. This requires a high-level policy of negotiations with the republican leaders so as to achieve firm promises from them that they back the new constitution.


Unfortunately, there seems little chance that Yeltsin will face up to this grim reality. His astonishing call for an early summit with Bill Clinton, on the grounds that "there should not be any pause in relations between great powers", is all of a piece with his continuing delusions about Russia's international stature. Russia needs good relations with the West, but these must be put in the context of a well thought-out foreign policy. This is still lacking in Moscow.


At times Yeltsin says that Russia is a natural ally of the West. At times he suggests that it needs nuclear parity with the United States, as though the two countries are still adversaries. This was what made last weekend's summit so weird. The Cold War is over, but the transition to a new role for Russia is a long way from being complete.


Jonathan Steele is the Moscow bureau chief for the Guardian, London.