MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin threatened on Thursday to suspend Russia's compliance with a key European arms control treaty, accusing the United States and NATO of undermining regional stability with its plan to extend an American missile shield to central Europe.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fired back by insisting Moscow should live up to its obligations under the treaty, which limits the number and locations of military aircraft, tanks and other non-nuclear heavy weapons around Europe. She called Russia's concerns "purely ludicrous" in a news conference at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Oslo, Norway.
But Putin's annual state-of-the-nation address made clear Russia is growing increasingly mistrustful of Western intentions.
"Our partners are behaving incorrectly, to say the least," he said. "In case no progress is made during negotiations, I propose to discuss the possibility to end our obligations."
The acrimonious exchange was just the latest indication of a growing divide between the former Cold War foes. Russia's annoyance with Western criticism of its rights record, and its perception that the U.S. is dominating world affairs have also added to tensions.
Washington says the deployment of interceptor missiles and radar systems in the Czech Republic and Poland will protect Europe and North America from new threats such as nuclear programs and long-range missiles from Iran and North Korea. But Moscow argues there is no immediate threat and claims the U.S. is trying to target Russia's strategic missile arsenal.
Hours after Putin and Rice traded long-distance barbs, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added to the fire in a lengthy diatribe that recalled the language of the Cold War. He accused the U.S. and its NATO allies of upsetting the security balance in Europe, creating new dividing lines and treating Russia as an enemy.
"We cannot be unconcerned by the fact that NATO military infrastructure is creeping up to our borders," Lavrov said at a news conference after a NATO-Russia meeting in Oslo. "They are still looking for an enemy."
Like Putin, Lavrov spoke of suspending participation in the arms control treaty.
However a Kremlin spokes- man said later that Russia would not pull out if it could reach accommodation with the West. And Russian military experts suggested the threat was a symbolic raising of the ante in the missile shield showdown more than a sign of impeding military escalation. Russia has no actual interest in a buildup of forces because it faces no real military threat and has no plans to launch any attack, they said.
"When we begin dialogue with our foreign partners, we hope that we will get a positive reaction from them," Kremlin spokes- man Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press. If no progress is made, Russian lawyers would begin working out a mechanism of formally imposing the moratorium, he added.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Putin's threat elicited "grave concern, disappointment and regret" among NATO allies.
The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty was signed in 1990 and amended in 1999 to reflect changes since the breakup of the Soviet Union, adding the requirement that Moscow withdraw troops from the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia. Russia has ratified the amended version, but the United States and other NATO members have refused to do so until Russia completely withdraws. Withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty between Russia and NATO members would allow Moscow to build up forces near its borders. In his speech to parliament and government officials, Putin accused NATO members of taking advantage of the situation to build military bases near Russia's borders, and said the missile defense plans for the Czech Republic and Poland were undermining the balance of military power in Europe. "It is high time that our partners proved their commitment to arms reductions not by words but by deeds," Putin said. "I consider it worthwhile to declare a moratorium until all NATO countries ratify (the treaty) ... and begin to strictly abide by it." He added that Russia already was taking steps to withdraw its forces from Moldova and Georgia. Rice repeated U.S. assertions that any defense system in Europe would be useless against Russia's enormous missile arsenal. "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it," she said. In a second news conference later on Thursday, Rice responded to Putin by saying: "The Russians have thousands of warheads. ... These are treaty obligations and everyone is expected to live up to treaty obligations." Rice urged the Russians to abandon Cold War-era thinking about the proposed system and accept U.S. offers to cooperate in combatting new threats, notably from Iran and North Korea. She insisted that Russia, Europe and the United States were all at risk from Iran developing long-range missiles. She said the U.S. would continue efforts to "demystify" the plan for the Russians by pushing an offer to share data and technology with Moscow. Two senior U.S. officials who attended the private NATO-Russia Council meeting, said Lavrov presented a list of complaints about the alliance and Washington's missile defense plans and they described the meeting as stormy. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were describing details of a closed meeting. The sparring between Russia and the U.S. dominated the first of two days of talks among NATO foreign ministers NATO diplomats said there is growing support for the U.S. plans among European governments, but Russia's rhetoric has unnerved some who fear the negative impact on relations with the Kremlin may outweigh any benefits of the shield. "The important thing is to prevent the spiral of mistrust between Russia and the USA," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.comments powered by Disqus