Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday signaled that Russia was on a new and explosive collision course with NATO when he dumped a key arms control treaty limiting the deployment of conventional forces in Europe.
Putin said that Moscow was unilaterally withdrawing from the Soviet-era Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty because of "extraordinary circumstances that affect the security of the Russian Federation," the Kremlin said. These required "immediate measures," it said.
The treaty governs where NATO and Russia can station their troops in Europe. Moscow's decision to bin it suggested that Putin's talks this month with US President George W. Bush had come to nothing, and that the Kremlin had reverted to its earlier belligerent mood. The Kremlin has been incensed by the Bush administration's decision to deploy elements of its missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Putin has derided US claims that the Pentagon system is designed to shoot down rogue missiles fired by North Korea and Iran, and says the target is Russia.
Last month he said the US could use a former Soviet radar system in Azerbaijan instead. But during the summit with Putin in Maine, Bush rejected this offer -- a snub that appeared to have triggered Putin's gesture.
Putin's decision to leave the treaty will come into effect in 150 days after the parties of the treaty have been notified.
It came against a backdrop of rapidly deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. In particular, Russia's relations with Britain are at their lowest point since the 1970s following Moscow's refusal last week to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB agent charged with poisoning Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London.
The Kremlin insisted, however, it had been left little choice over the treaty. The Foreign Ministry called the treaty "hopelessly outdated." It said restrictions on Russian troop deployment were now "senseless" and prevented "more efficient measures against international terrorism." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia could no longer tolerate a situation where it had ratified and its partners had not.
Under the treaty, signed by the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, Russia agreed to scrap much of its military hardware in Eastern Europe and limit the number of troops stationed on its northern and southern flanks.
The treaty was amended in 1999, calling on Russia to withdraw its troops from the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia. Russia ratified the treaty but did not pull out its troops, prompting the US and other NATO members to refuse to ratify the treaty until Russia withdrew.
Analysts said that Putin's move would probably 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 breakaway regions of Georgia and Moldova.
Also see story:
US, EU concerned over Kremlin move to drop arms treaty