MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin suspended his country's participation in a Cold War-era conventional arms-control pact yesterday, which is looked upon as a cornerstone of European security, further deepening the rift between the Kremlin and Western governments.
By imposing a moratorium on its involvement in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, or CFE, Russia is no longer bound by the treaty's limits on the size of its conventional weapons arsenal west of the Ural Mountains.
Russia's suspension of the treaty also allows it to bar NATO countries from performing inspections and verifications at military sites in the European part of the country.
Driving the Kremlin's decision, as well as much of Putin's hostile rhetoric against the U.S. and NATO this year, has been President Bush's push for a missile shield in Europe to protect the continent from rogue states such as Iran. The Kremlin views the idea as a direct threat to Russian national security.
"This step has been prompted by exceptional circumstances related to the CFE's essence affecting Russia's security, and requiring urgent measures," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
NATO authorities previously warned Putin against carrying out the threat he made during his annual state of the nation address in the spring to halt Russian participation in the treaty. Yesterday, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the Western military alliance "regrets this decision by the Russian Federation. It is a step in the wrong direction."
Signed in 1990 by NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, the treaty sets limits on the deployment of tanks, attack helicopters and other military equipment from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains. The treaty's aim was to equalize the comparatively large advantage the Soviet Union's conventional weapons arsenal had over European neighbors.
In 1999, countries that signed the treaty agreed to an updated version of the pact. Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine ratified the new version, but the U.S. and its NATO allies balked at ratification until Russia agreed to pull its troops out of two former Soviet republics now allied with the West, Georgia and Moldova. Russia's pullout from Georgia is continuing, but it has refused to remove its troops from the breakaway Moldovan province of Transdniester.
The Kremlin uses the refusal of Western nations to ratify the new CFE treaty to bolster its argument against continued participation in the pact. However, the move is likely to be perceived in the West as another exercise in brinkmanship from the Kremlin, which remains vehemently opposed to U.S. plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe.
The Kremlin believes the missile shield would be directed at Russia and is part of a larger, U.S.-led campaign to push NATO military might up to Russia's borders.
Russia's suspension of involvement in the treaty threatens to sour whatever goodwill Putin and Bush were able to restore during the Russian leader's visit to the Bush home in Kennebunkport, Maine, after months of harsh rhetoric from the Kremlin. That included a May speech in which Putin likened the Bush administration to the Third Reich.
Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.