Moscow officially ended its adherence to a key Cold War treaty that sets limits on the number of soldiers and weapons stationed in Europe. Russia says NATO left it with no choice but to abandon the agreement.
Moscow can now legally move troops and weapons without notifying NATO
Officials in Moscow said on Wednesday, Dec. 12, that there are no plans to build up their military forces after they suspended participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty but added the move was necessary to protect Russia's national security.
"Such a step has been caused by the exceptional circumstances connected to the content of the treaty, which concern the security of Russia and demand that we take immediate measures," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appealed for Moscow to reconsider its decision, calling the treaty a "cornerstone for European security for 15 years."
"The suspension that takes effect today is not good news," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, the group's chairman-in-office, said in a statement. "The loss of the CFE system of limitations, information and verification would be detrimental to all and could have security implications for all of Europe."
Military free to move
The treaty limits troops numbers between the Atlantic and the Urals
Suspension means Russia can move troops around the country without notifying NATO, allowing Russia to lift the "limitations placed on arms deployments," the Russian foreign ministry statement said.
Signed in 1990 and modified after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1999, the treaty places exact caps on the numbers of troops and heavy weapons stationed west of the Ural mountains. The CFE deal was seen as an important step in resolving the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ordering Moscow's suspension of the treaty last month. The decree met with wide acceptance in the Russian parliament.
"We won't observe any obligations unilaterally," Putin said in a speech last month. "Our partners did not ratify the treaty and some did not even sign it."
NATO expanded to Russia's borders in 2004
At the heart of Russia's complaints on the CFE is NATO's failure to ratify the amended 1999 version of the treaty, which takes into account the huge changes wrought by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO's expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union would potentially allow for the alliance's troops within striking distance of St. Petersburg.
"The hypothetical transfer of NATO forces into the Baltics is a real military threat," Alexei Arbatov, an arms control expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center independent think-tank told Reuters news agency.
NATO countries say they cannot ratify the 1999 version because Russian troop presence in ex-Soviet Georgia and Moldova violates the treaty, a charge Moscow rejects. The Kremlin has said soldiers stationed in the two countries represent a peacekeeping force.
In a statement, NATO expressed "deep regret" that Russia had suspended the arms pact. But it underlined that the military alliance would not take any retaliatory action.
The demise of the CFE comes on top of Moscow's threat to leave the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, as well as tensions around US plans to install a missile-defense shield in NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic.
Reply to US missile shield
Russia is opposed to the US plans for missile defense bases in the Czech Republic and Poland
While the Russian foreign ministry statement Wednesday made clear the military did not intend to make any major moves, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko last week gave a mixed message about possible changes in troop levels.
"Russia has no plans to raise its military presence in Europe, obviously, that is, if there is not an attempt to raise the military presence by NATO countries," he told reporters.
Washington has said its missile shield initiative is designed to guard against attacks from "rogue states," but Moscow views it as an attempt by the US to expand its military influence into Russia's backyard.
Though Russia could theoretically return to the treaty at anytime, observers said international disagreement between Russia and the West makes such a move unlikely.
"The treaty is dead," military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told the AFP news agency. "It makes a lot of economic sense to move forces from Siberia to Leningrad district, because it's two or three times more expensive to keep them in Siberia. It will also send a powerful signal to the West. It's a win-win situation for Russia."