It was reported today that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has submitted the New START Treaty to the lower house of the Russian parliament for ratification – the Duma. While it is well known that Senate ratification could take some time, some suggest that in contrast, Duma ratification is a foregone conclusion. But are suggestions like this an accurate portrayal of Russian politics or overly simplistic ?
For the START follow-on Treaty to be ratified in Russia, it needs to pass through the two houses of the Russian Federal Assembly. The lower house, or State Duma, is the more powerful of the two and will be the first port of call for Treaty ratification. For the Treaty to be approved by the Duma, and thus passed onto the Federation Council for consideration, it must be supported by a majority vote. The Duma has 450 members, who since November 2007 (after intervention of Vladimir Putin), have been elected by proportional representation. As a consequence , United Russia (‘essentially a creation of Putin’) now has 64.3% of the seats in the Duma. This suggests that theoretically, the New START Treaty – especially given United Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev approval of it – will have no problem getting approved at the Duma.
The Federation Council has 168 members, of which more than half need to vote in favor of the Treaty (post-Duma approval) to complete the ratification process. In 2000 President Putin controversially reformed the Federation Council, which prior had been used by Yeltsin as a means to mitigate the Duma’s power and was thus generally obstructive. As a consequence of these reforms, Putin ensured the selection of a wave of Kremlin-friendly senators – implying that approval of START follow on in the upper house should also be relatively straightforward.
Nonetheless, there are two issue areas that could potentially delay ratification, or at worse, lead to no ratification at all.
1. Missile Defense
In the U.S., Republican Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain are well known for their concerns regarding the START follow on Treaty, specifically with regard to it potentially limiting future U.S missile defense deployments. In response, Treaty negotiators have been at pains to highlight the fact that the Treaty does not formally limit missile defense. In contrast to Kyl and McCain, some Russians are concerned that a further expansion of U.S missile defense might threaten the nuclear balance of power, limiting both their tactical and strategic missile deployments. Reflecting this concern, State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov started in March that ratification would not take place if the Treaty ‘does not take into account the link between strategic offensive weapons and missile defense’. To get around this divergence of opinion, Treaty negotiators included two non-binding ‘unilateral’ statements, designed to appease the likes of Kyl and Gryzlov. However, because these statements are inherently contradictory, there is potential that despite their non-binding nature, stubborn members in either the Duma or Senate could delay ratification. As Riki Ellison of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance points out, ”the reality of a successfully ratified outcome will most likely not happen unless we agree to disagree on the linkage of missile defense with Russia.”
2. Presidential Election 2012
Vladimir Putin was forced out of his Presidency in 2008 because of a two-term consecutive limit. However, because there are no restrictions preventing him running for a third term after someone else serves, rumors now suggest that Medvedev will be facing competition from Putin at the 2012 Presidential Election. According to Alexander A. Pikayev, the very possibility of this has now triggered a wave of speculation on what appears ”to be a widening crack between those aides closest to the two leaders, if not the leaders themselves.”
The implication it seems is that even though President Medvedev might be eager to get the treaty ratified as soon as possible (to evidence strong leadership in the run up to the 2012 Presidential elections), Putin could delay ratification to undermine his colleague using this power, should he so desire.
Cause for Hope?
In conclusion, while there are two potential risk areas that could delay ratification, it seems that overall it will be in the interests and capability of United Russia, through both Medvedev and Putin, to ensure that ratification is favored in both houses – thus facilitating (if not forcing) a straightforward ratification.