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Putin threatens to scrap weapons treaty

Russia on Thursday stepped up its row with the United States over American plans to build a missile defence shield in Europe by announcing that it was considering withdrawing from a Soviet-era weapons treaty.

President Vladimir Putin said that Russia was considering a moratorium on the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE), under which Nato and the Warsaw Pact agreed to reduce their conventional armed forces at the end of the cold war.

Nato had failed to implement the treaty, he said. Unless it did so Russia, would dump it unilaterally.

Putin described the US plan to site missile interceptor and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic as a “direct threat”. Nato countries were “building up military bases on our borders and, what’s more, are also planning to station elements of anti-missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic”, he said, in what was probably his last State of the Nation address.

“In this connection, I consider it expedient to declare a moratorium on Russia’s implementation of this treaty — in any case, until all countries of the world have ratified and started to implement it.”

Putin’s announcement and defiant tone suggest that the US administration’s attempts to convince Moscow the shield is not directed at Russia have not worked.

Earlier this week the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, assured Putin during a trip to Moscow that the shield was solely directed at rogue missiles fired by Iran or North Korea. on Thursday the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, dismissed Russian fears as “purely ludicrous”.

Nato officials sought urgent clarification of Russia’s intentions. At a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Oslo, the Nato Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said he would ask Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to explain what Putin meant. “The Nato allies attach great importance to the CFE treaty and are of the opinion that the adapted CFE treaty will be ratified,” he said.

Under the treaty, signed by the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, Russia agreed to scrap much of its military hardware in Europe and limit the number of troops stationed on its northern and southern flanks.

The Kremlin says Nato countries are not abiding by the treaty. “It takes two to tango and you can’t dance a tango on your own,” said spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

On Thursday analysts said Putin’s move probably would not make much difference to Russia’s military capacities, but it would allow Russian generals to carry out exercises without informing their Western counterparts — and keep Russian troops in the disputed breakaway regions of Georgia and Moldova.

“Putin is trying to put the ball back in America’s court,” said Sergei Karaganov, the deputy director of Moscow’s Institute of European Studies.

Putin also used Thursday’s address to accuse the West of meddling in Russia’s affairs. “There is a growth of flow of money from abroad for direct interference in our internal affairs,” he claimed — an apparent reference to Russia’s small but growing opposition movement.

Putin gave no clue as to who is likely to succeed him when he steps down next year. Under Russia’s Constitution he can only serve two follow-on terms. But he hinted that he does not intend to leave politics just yet — leaving the door open for him to come back as president in 2012. — Guardian Unlimited Â

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