Russia suspends participation in key arms pact

Russia suspended its participation in a key pact limiting military forces in Europe on Saturday, fulfilling a threat after months of verbal sparring with the West.

The suspension comes amid worsening relations with Europe and Washington on a range of fronts, including United States plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe, proposed independence for Serbia’s Kosovo province and Moscow’s energy policies.

“Russian threats have materialised and I don’t exclude that more steps could follow,” said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank. “If there is no agreement with the United States on the missile shield ... Russia could potentially go ahead with its threats to retarget [at Europe] and redeploy missiles—something we have already seen in the 1970s.”

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree suspending Russia’s role in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty for reasons of “national security”.
The pact was adopted in 1990 to limit the number of tanks, heavy artillery and combat aircraft deployed and stored between the Atlantic and Russia’s Ural mountains.

Russia has criticised the West for failing to ratify a version amended to take into account the new post-Cold War situation. Talks last month with Nato states ended without progress.

A Nato spokesperson said on Saturday of the Russian suspension: “If this is confirmed, the Secretary General very much regrets this decision. The allies consider this treaty to be an important cornerstone of European security.”

A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the EU also regretted the Russian move. Britain too called the CFE a “cornerstone” of European security.

Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told Reuters the Russian decision was “disconcerting”.

“Perhaps this is a pretext, one that may be related to the plans to build the missile-shield facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic,” he said. “It could also be related to internal reasons, a way of showing Russia’s strength ahead of the presidential campaign.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday the country would now stop providing information and allowing inspections of its heavy weapons, and would decide unilaterally on how many tanks or aircraft were in each region. But it added: “The Russian moratorium on the CFE pact does not mean that we are fully shutting the door for dialogue.”

Troop levels

Putin is due to step down in March next year, when his second term expires. Anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric traditionally grows in Russia before elections. In February, Putin stunned the West by accusing Washington of trying to dominate the world.

Moscow has since threatened to create an Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries-style gas cartel and deploy missiles in its Western enclave Kaliningrad.

A source of friction over the CFE treaty is Nato’s insistence on preserving “flanking arrangements” that ban large concentrations of forces and materiel near some borders.

Russia objects to that provision because it limits Russian troop movements within Russian territory, although Moscow says its border areas have become more unstable since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

Russia wants cuts in Nato troop levels in outlying regions to reflect the accession to the alliance of Eastern European states bordering Russia since 1990.

Nato states have said treaty changes depend on Russia withdrawing troops from the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia, but Russia rejects any link between the two issues.

Volk said he now expects Moscow to deploy more conventional forces in its north-west as retaliation for the expansion of Nato and amid rocky relations with the former Soviet republic of Estonia, now a member of the EU.

Russia will deploy more troops in the Caucasus amid chilly relations with Georgia, he said, and suspend its withdrawal of troops from Moldova’s separatist region Transdniestria.—Reuters

Additional reporting by Chris Borowski in Warsaw

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