NATO "very concerned" at Russia treaty pullout
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO said on Monday it was very concerned at Russia's decision to suspend participation in a landmark treaty limiting armed forces in post-Cold War Europe amid growing tension over a U.S. missile shield.
President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Friday suspending participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) pact from mid-December in apparent retaliation for plans to deploy parts of a U.S. interceptor system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"The announcement by the Russian Federation ... is deeply disappointing. The Allies are very concerned by this unilateral decision," the 26-nation Western military alliance said.
Eduard Shevardnadze, who as Soviet foreign minister helped to seal the 1990 CFE pact, called Putin's move the first step towards a new Cold War. But a Russian military source insisted Moscow had no plans for any large-scale westward deployment after it quits the treaty.
In a statement, NATO said it placed the highest value on the CFE regime, which limits the numbers of heavy weapons deployed between the Atlantic and the Ural mountains.
"We hope that the Russian Federation will join us in constructive and creative dialogue to ensure the continued operation and viability of the landmark CFE Treaty, including its flank regime, and not undermine prospects for entry into force of the adapted CFE treaty," it said.
Shevardnadze, a dove who played a central role in ending the East-West conflict, told Reuters: "I believe this step is the first move towards reviving the Cold War.
"In my opinion, this step by Moscow is a response to Washington's decision to deploy elements of its anti-missile shield in Europe."
NATO said 25 of the 30 participating states in CFE talks in Vienna last month had supported Western compromise proposals, and the allies remained ready for further negotiations.
"Our understanding is that the Treaty does not allow for suspension, so this unilateral move is certainly unfortunate, but anyway the allies will continue to implement," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told Reuters Television.
A NATO source said most allies saw Putin's move as largely symbolic and did not want to dramatise it to prevent Russia exacting a political price for returning to the treaty.
But Polish and Russian officials traded accusations.
Polish Defence Minister Aleksander Szczyglo said the move, coinciding with Polish President Lech Kaczynski's visit to the United States, "places Russia among countries that are characterised in a normal language as becoming unpredictable".
"This is a threat for both Europe and Russia," he told reporters accompanying Kaczynski in Washington, according to the daily Gazeta Wyborcza's Web site.
"The biggest problem Russia has is with itself."
Putin's ultimatum, issued against the backdrop of tensions with the West, raised initial fears of a military build-up.
An unnamed Defence Ministry source told Interfax news agency: "As of now, there is no need to radically boost forces in any European direction. As for the future, we will see how the U.S.-led NATO, whose policy is becoming increasingly unpredictable, behaves."
Russia will formally end its treaty obligations on December 13, the source told Interfax, unless NATO states ratify the pact by then -- of which there is little sign.
The CFE was signed in 1990 to avoid conflict between NATO and the crumbling communist Warsaw Pact, and amended in 1999 to take account of the collapse of the communist bloc.
Russia and ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine are the only nations to have ratified the amended version of the pact.
NATO members have declined to ratify it until Russia withdraws its troops from ex-Soviet Moldova, as it pledged to do in 1999 when the pact was signed.
(additional reporting by Marine Hass in Brussels, Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw)
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