By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 1, 2007
MOSCOW, Nov. 30 -- President Vladimir Putin signed a law Friday suspending Russia's participation in a major conventional arms treaty that had limited NATO and Russian military deployments in Europe.
The Kremlin had been threatening all year to scrap the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, and on Friday Putin signed a law passed this month by parliament providing for that step. The suspension takes effect Dec. 12.
Putin's decision comes two days before parliamentary elections and after a campaign marked by harsh anti-Western rhetoric and claims that the president has restored Russia's ability to stand up to the United States and the NATO alliance.
Signed in the last days of the Cold War, the accord limited the number of tanks, combat aircraft and attack helicopters, as well as artillery pieces and other heavy weapons, that NATO and the Soviet Union could deploy in Western Europe and the western part of Russia.
Senior Russian generals have said there will be no immediate deployment of military hardware to Russia's western borders following the suspension. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Russia is ready to discuss implementing an amended version of the treaty.
The United States, the European Union and NATO had urged Russia not to suspend the treaty, which was regarded in Western Europe as a cornerstone agreement for maintaining security on the continent.
"NATO regrets this decision," spokesman James Appathurai said in a statement. "We hope that the Russian Federation will not take any unilateral actions that undermine the integrity of the Treaty. Allies are looking forward to discussing the issue at the upcoming NATO-Russia Council meeting."
The Kremlin had previously linked suspension to U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The United States says the system is intended as a defense against a potential threat from Iran, but Russia fears it will be used to peer into its airspace. Russian officials have not been assuaged by U.S. proposals designed to alleviate those concerns.
Russia has also expressed unhappiness at the failure of NATO countries, including the United States, to ratify amendments to the treaty that were agreed to in 1999. It is this amended version that Lavrov expressed willingness to discuss.
The amendments require Russia to withdraw troops from the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia, and some NATO countries have refused to ratify them until Russia complies. Russia is currently drawing down its forces in Georgia and argues that its small contingent in Moldova fulfills an essential peacekeeping role in a breakaway province there.
The Kremlin also says NATO has violated the treaty by deploying troops in Eastern Europe, a charge the military alliance rejects.
"The military and political situation in Europe has changed. Without appropriate changes, the CFE lost its contact with reality," Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said in Madrid on Friday. "All this left us with no other choice but to impose a moratorium on the treaty from December 12."