MOSCOW -- After years of delay, Russian lawmakers today approved the START II treaty to scrap thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, clearing the way for further arms reductions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the treaty vote but warned the United States not to breach a separate pact on anti-ballistic missiles, saying Russia would abandon all nuclear and conventional arms control agreements if it did.
The 288-131 vote by the State Duma handed Putin an important legislative victory and was likely to boost the government's relations with the West, damaged by Chechnya and other recent disputes.
START II would halve U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to about 3,000-3,500 warheads each by the end of 2007 and enable both nations to step up efforts to work out an additional treaty, START III, for even deeper cuts.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, on a visit to Kiev, the capital of neighboring Ukraine, welcomed the vote.
''This is a big step forward,'' she said.
Putin, who won presidential elections in March, pushed for approval of START II after Communists had stalled it for years. The vote was the first demonstration of power by the new centrist majority in the Duma, which emerged after December elections that ended Communist control over the chamber.
Putin and the centrist parties are expected to work together, ending the bitter rivalry between the Communists and ex-President Boris Yeltsin that often paralyzed the government.
START II, which was approved by the U.S. Senate in 1996, must now be ratified by the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, where approval is expected.
Putin said Russia did not want to be dragged into a new global arms race and START II was the best way to ensure the country's security.
But he also demanded the United States adhere to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia opposes a U.S. desire to change the treaty to allow it to build a limited nuclear defense system.
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