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Flexing Moscow's Muscles

Article compiled based on wire reports (nda)July 14, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin made true on earlier warnings to withdraw Russia's participation from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) on Saturday.

Putin's decision to leave the treaty will allow Russia to move its troops without inspectionImage: AP

President Putin signed a decree pulling Russia out of the treaty effective immediately, the Kremlin said in a statement Saturday.

While Russia's move to withdraw from the unloved CFE Treaty does not come as a complete surprise, the current timing may be seen as a strong signal towards the United States to reconsider its missile defense plans, which Russia fears are directly aimed against it.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier voiced concern at Russia's decision.

The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), which limits the number of heavy weapons deployed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Urals mountains, is a centrepiece of the international architecture of disarmament, he said.

Steinmeier said he hoped the international community would maintain contact with Russia in order to ensure that talks on the CFE treaty could be reactivated.

The German foreign minister was speaking in the Lithuanian town of Nida on the final day of a four-day visit to the Baltic States.

US missile shield plans blamed

Washington's plans to for the missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic are widely regarded as being the immediate trigger for Moscow's CFE withdrawal.

Several warning signs already gave an indication of Moscow's intentions. In speech to parliament in April, Putin said Russia should "consider" a moratorium on the CFE.

At a mid-June meeting of the 30 CFE signatory states in Vienna, Russia made its disenchantment with the 16-year old treaty, which it regards outdated and strategically flawed, abundantly clear.

West must react to new realities

Putin in Wien
Putin left the Vienna Conference unconvincedImage: AP

While the Vienna conference closed without tangible results, diplomats on both sides had at least agreed to keep talking and review each other's positions. But Saturday's developments show Russia believes the time for talking is over. Now the West is tasked to react to the new realities created by Putin.

With US-Russian relations at their lowest since the end of the Cold War, a meeting between Putin and US President George W Bush at Kennebunkport, Maine in early July brought little progress in resolving the issue.

At the Group of Eight summit in Germany in early June, Putin surprised Bush by making an offer of using a Russian radar site in Azerbaijan as a substitute for the Polish and Czech facilities.

The Kremlin leader then expanded on that in Maine by including another site in southern Russia.

While not rejecting Putin's initiative outright, Bush stressed the US was determined to forge ahead with its plans in Eastern Europe. Both leaders agreed on intensifying dialogue between Russia and NATO, but this has not been enough for Russia, Saturday's decision clearly shows.

CFE controlled and monitored forces in Europe

Russland Militärmanöver
Without the treaty, Russia can expand its military rangeImage: AP

The original CFE Treaty between NATO and the then-Warsaw Pact states places upper limits to the deployment of conventional armed forces in Europe -- attack helicopters, artillery combat vehicles and aircraft -- by a system of mutual verification and inspections.

In 1999, taking heed of the changes since the initial signing in 1991, the treaty was adapted to accommodate post-Cold War realities. Russia pledged to withdraw troops and ammunition from the breakaway provinces of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia.

Those so-called "Istanbul Commitments," for NATO an integral part to the CFE Treaty, are one of Russia's main grievances. NATO's member states refuse to ratify the adapted treaty unless Moscow fulfils the commitments, while Russia resents this linkage.

Displaying its foreign-policy muscle by withdrawing from the CFE also plays into Russian objections to UN plans for independence for the southern-Serb province Kosovo. Moscow argues such a step would set an important precedent for other regions aspiring to independence - including some in the Russian Federation.

Russia free to expand forces on its borders

Deutsche Soldaten bereiten sich auf einen Einsatz in Mazedonien vor
Troop deployments in Europe were controlled by the CFEImage: AP

Putin's decision also removed limits the CFE sets on the number of troops Russia can deploy at its southern and northern flanks, in the past a major cause for concern for its neighbors. Russia on the other hand said it felt constrained on its own territory.

The treaty forbids troop concentrations in one place which could lead to large regional power shifts. Russia was concerned that the NATO accession of countries like Romania would shift that power balance in NATO's favor.

Apart from the immediate implications, Russia's withdrawal must also be interpreted as part of Moscow's drive to reassert its superpower status.

Bolstered by a budget comfortably padded by incoming petrodollars, large existing weapons arsenals and not to forget its hand on Europe's oil tap, Russia feels it deserves to be taken seriously again. Suspending the CFE Treaty is only one step in that direction.