- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2000

Who wants to play Russian roulette with American national security? The White House may be inclined to do so. Fortunately, Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is refusing to go along. Let's hope the senator remains firm in this stand.

At long last, the new Russian government has placed on the table the deal on arms control and missile defense that has been the subject of speculation for more than a year now. It involves nothing less than two arms control treaties and the future of U.S. national missile defense. These are high stakes indeed, and must be declined by the Senate should the White House be foolish enough to play along as every indication is that it will. The timing of the Russians is beautiful. With an outgoing president eager for something anything to show for his scandal-ridden presidency, the U.S. government would appear poised to fall into the trap.

First step was the belated ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II, which Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed through the Russian Duma as one of his first official acts. START II reduces the number of nuclear warheads on both sides to 3,500 and was foolishly viewed in the West as a conciliatory Russian step and a good omen for the new presidency.

Then came the iron fist. At the United Nations on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov issued a tough warning: Should the United States decide to proceed with a national missile defense system, it would "destroy" the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), he said, and have dire consequences. "The prevailing system of arms control agreements is a complex and quite fragile structure," Mr. Ivanov said. "Once one of its key elements has been weakened, the entire system is destabilized. The collapse of the ABM treaty would, therefore, undermine the entirety of disarmament agreements concluded over the past 30 years." This "entirety" obviously includes START II.

This doesn't mean, however, that the Russian government will not generously allow the United States an itsy-bitsy missile defense, a mere handkerchief of a system, wherewith to defend its citizens. Yesterday, Mr. Ivanov told reporters that Russia would be willing to accept a limited, land-based system capable of intercepting a few incoming missiles from Iraq or North Korea. Allegedly, such a system can be built (is indeed being planned by the Clinton administration for construction in Alaska) with just a few revisions to the ABM treaty. Mr. Ivanov was all sweetness and light and came up with a constructive proposal: The United States and Russia would implement minor changes to the ABM Treaty negotiated in 1997, and agree to START III cuts of nuclear warheads to 1,500.

Isn't that nice? The Russians will get to cut an arsenal that is deteriorating rapidly anyway, and we will get to tie our own hands behind our back as regards missile attack from any and all enemies of the United States (which of course may include the Russians).

To his enduring credit, Mr. Helms has made it clear that no such deal will get the stamp of approval from his committee; it would be "dead on arrival." "This administration's time for grand treaties is clearly at an end," Mr. Helms said. "We will not consider any new, last-minute arms control measures that this administration negotiates in its final closing months." It would be a disaster if Mr. Clinton's final act in office was to undermine American national security. It must not happen.

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