MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday suspended his country’s participation in a Cold War-era conventional arms-control pact looked upon as a cornerstone of European security, further deepening the rift between the Kremlin and Western governments.
By imposing a moratorium on its involvement in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, Russia no longer is bound by treaty-mandated limits on the size of its conventional weapons arsenal west of the Ural Mountains.
Russia’s suspension of the treaty also allows it to bar NATO countries from performing inspections and verifications at military sites in the European part of the country.
Driving the Kremlin’s decision, as well as much of Putin’s hostile rhetoric against the U.S. and NATO this year, has been President Bush’s push for a missile shield in Europe to protect the continent from rogue states such as Iran. The Kremlin views the idea as a direct threat to Russian national security.
“This step has been prompted by exceptional circumstances related to the CFE’s essence affecting Russia’s security, and requiring urgent measures,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
NATO authorities previously warned Putin against carrying out the threat he made during his annual state of the nation address this spring to halt Russian participation in the treaty. On Saturday, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the Western military alliance “regrets this decision by the Russian Federation. It is a step in the wrong direction.”
The White House also expressed its frustration.
“We’re disappointed Russia has suspended its participation for now, but we’ll continue to have discussions with them in the coming months on the best way to proceed in this area. That is in the interest of all parties involved and provides security for Europe,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Signed in 1990 by NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, the treaty set sets limits on the deployment of tanks, attack helicopters and other military equipment from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains. The treaty’s aim was to equalize the comparatively large advantage the Soviet Union’s conventional weapons arsenal had over European neighbors.
In 1999, countries that signed the treaty agreed to an updated version of the pact. Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine ratified the new version, but the U.S. and its NATO allies balked at ratification until Russia agreed to pull its troops out of two former Soviet republics now allied with the West, Georgia and Moldova. Russia’s pullout from Georgia is ongoing, but it has refused to remove its troops from the breakaway Moldovan province of Transdniester.
The Kremlin cites the refusal of Western nations to ratify the new CFE treaty to bolster its argument against continued participation in the pact. However, the move is likely to be perceived in the West as another exercise in brinkmanship from the Kremlin, which remains vehemently opposed to U.S. plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe.
The updated lan calls for the placement of 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. U.S. leaders want the $3.5 billion system operational by 2012, arguing that Iran could have long-range missile capability by 2015.
The Kremlin however, believes the missile shield actually would be directed at Russia and is part of a larger, U.S.-led campaign to push NATO military might up to Russia’s borders.
“It is time for our partners to also make their contribution to arms reductions, not just in word but in deed,” Putin said in his national address in April. “At the moment, they are only increasing arms. It’s time for them to start making cutbacks, if only in Europe.”
Putin has suggested an alternative missile defense system that would use an existing radar installation that Russia rents in Gabala, Azerbaijan. While U.S. officials have said they are considering the Kremlin’s suggestions, they have stressed that the Azeri radar could only supplement the missile defense system’s planned radar in the Czech Republic.
Russia’s suspension of involvement in the treaty threatens to sour whatever goodwill Putin and Bush were able to restore during the Russian leader’s visit to the Bush home in Kennebunkport, Maine, after months of harsh rhetoric from the Kremlin. That included a May speech in which Putin likened the Bush administration to the Third Reich.