Russia threatens to leave missile treaty

Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened on Friday in talks with United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to abandon a key nuclear-missile treaty, while also telling Washington to freeze plans for a European anti-missile shield.

Speaking at the start of talks with Rice and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the Kremlin leader said the Cold War-era INF treaty limiting Russian and US short- and medium-range missiles was outmoded because other countries were acquiring such weapons.

“If we are unable to make such a goal of making this treaty universal, then it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of such a treaty, especially when other countries do have such weapons systems,” Putin said.

Putin urged the US delegation, which was in Moscow to address spiralling Russian-US tensions, “not to force” the planned deployment of an anti-missile system in new Nato members Poland and the Czech Republic.

Gates said that talks on Friday and Saturday were to tackle “an ambitious agenda for security issues that concern both of us, including the development of missile systems by others in the neighbourhood — I would say in particular Iran”.

The two sides were also to raise Iran’s nuclear programme, the status of Kosovo, and proposals to renew the Cold War-era Start strategic missile treaty.

Adding to the sensitivity of the trip, which comes at a time of rancorous relations between an increasingly hawkish Kremlin and White House, Rice was to meet with human rights activists.

Domestic and foreign critics of Putin accuse him of dismantling post-Soviet democratic gains in the run-up to December parliamentary and March presidential elections.

Lavrov said on arrival for the talks at Putin’s Novo-Ogaryevo residence in the Moscow suburbs that deals were far from certain.

Asked if he expected a breakthrough, Lavrov quipped: “Breaks definitely, [but] through or down, I don’t know.”

The high-powered US delegation was unlikely to make much progress in persuading Moscow to back a Western push for tougher sanctions on Iran.

Putin said on Wednesday that he saw no evidence the Islamic republic was masking a bomb-making project behind the largely Russian-built civilian nuclear-power programme.

But Rice, who hopes to persuade Moscow to back stronger action against Tehran, said en route to Moscow that the Russians were indeed worried by Iran’s intentions.

A Russian proposal to handle Iran’s uranium processing on Russian territory and to control any spent fuel revealed “suspicion about Iran’s intentions”, she said.

On Kosovo, Russia has sided with Serbia in opposing Western backing for independence in the breakaway province, currently administered by the United Nations.

A December 10 deadline in talks between Belgrade and Pristina will increase the urgency for a compromise.

But with Gates in attendance, the focus was likely to be on the explosive debate over US plans to install a missile defence shield in Central Europe.

Russia vehemently opposes the stationing of interceptor missiles in Poland and a powerful targeting radar in the Czech Republic by 2012, but has offered access to a Russian-controlled early warning radar in Azerbaijan as an alternative.

The United States and its Nato allies face another deadline on December 12 when Putin has said Russia will suspend its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty if it is not ratified by all Nato nations.

Nato countries insist that Russia first withdraw its troops from ex-Soviet Moldova and Georgia, both of which are seeking closer ties with Western institutions.

Rice and Gates will also discuss proposals for a follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limited both sides to 6 000 warheads, but expires in 2009, the state department said. — AFP

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