Vladimir Putin has suspended Russia’s participation in a landmark arms control treaty, delivering what Nato members regard as one of the most blatant examples yet of Moscow’s assertive new foreign policy.
Moscow has walked away from its commitment to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), a pact that limits weapons levels on either side of the former “iron curtain” and requires Nato and Russia to notify each other in advance of movements of forces and equipment.
Western diplomats said Moscow’s suspension of the treaty would have its first tangible impact on Friday when Nato and Russia would normally engage in an annual exchange of information on their respective troop and equipment numbers in Europe. Moscow is now expected to refrain from handing over information required under the terms of the treaty.
Russia’s suspension of the CFE, first signed in 1990, is seen by Nato states as a potentially significant act. The suspension – unless it is quickly reversed – will leave Nato and Russia uncertain at any given time over how and where the other side has deployed its conventional forces.
Dan Fried, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said late on Tuesday: “The Russian move to suspend the CFE treaty is deeply regrettable. It doesn’t favour anyone’s security interests and it’s particularly unfortunate given the international and American efforts to address Russian concerns.”
For its part, Moscow played down the significance of the move.
“There is no threat from Moscow. No one in Berlin would think that Russian tanks could move on Germany,” said Anatoly Antonov, the head of the Russian foreign ministry’s security and disarmament department.
Nato’s rift with Russia over the CFE pact has been brewing for some time. One of Nato’s principal concerns has been that Russia should withdraw troops from two former Soviet states, Georgia and Moldova.
Both states want those forces removed. Russia in turn has demanded that the Baltic states should ratify the CFE treaty to ensure that there is no build-up of Nato forces there.
However, the US and its Nato allies feel strongly that Moscow ended up negotiating in a way that made it impossible to reach a deal. According to US and UK officials, Moscow demanded that it should no longer be required to abide by “flank limits”, which restrict the number of troops and equipment it can mass on its northern and southern borders. Russia, in turn, insisted that similar limits should apply to Nato.
“Their position was utterly inconsistent,” said a senior US official. “They wanted symbolically and for political reasons to smash something from the 1990s.”
Now that the treaty has been suspended, Nato diplomats are focused on what will happen next. “It’s pretty clear Russia won’t exchange data or receive inspections,” said a US official. “What’s not clear is whether they will move equipment in a way that other countries find threatening.”
According to western diplomats, Russia has indicated that it will not move any forces in the north around the Baltics. But there are concerns in Nato capitals that Moscow could now build up its military presence in the northern Caucasus.
Such moves could become particularly serious if Russia were formally to recognise the independence of the breakaway enclave of Abkhazia from Georgia next year, in retaliation at the west’s recognition of an independent Kosovo.