President Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes in Russia’s deepening conflict with the west over missiles, deterrence and security.
By suspending the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Russian leader hit at a key pact ending the cold war. Mr Putin complained the treaty was unfair because Nato states had not ratified it. Nato said it had not been ratified because Russia had not met key conditions – pulling troops from Georgia and Moldova.
The practical effect of Russia’s move will be small since the huge arms cuts envisaged by the treaty happened long ago and will not be reversed. Russia, with a defence budget only 5 per cent of the US’s, would see a new arms race as a disaster. Mr Putin also promised to continue the politically-sensitive withdrawal of troops from Georgia.
However, Thursday’s decision is strategically important because it signals Russia’s growing readiness to tear up the post-1990 diplomatic order. Moscow believes today’s strong Russia can revisit the deals done in the 1990s by a weak Russia. The Kremlin also argues the US has repeatedly acted unilaterally, including over Iraq and over recent plans for Czech and Polish missile defence bases. If the US can set aside bilateral or multilateral pacts, says Moscow, so can Russia.
These developments take the world into perilous waters. While there is no open ideological conflict between east and west, there are deep differences over democracy and the rule of law. It will be dangerous if these disputes prevent Russia, the European Union and the US co-operating on matters of mutual interest, including energy, the war against terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation.
The US is entitled to look after its own security. But it must accept security is often easier to build in partnership with others than alone. America, not Russia, was the first to pull out of a cold war arms pact when in 2001 it abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Washington’s recent effort to explain its missile defence plans to sceptical European states, including Russia, is long overdue.
Moscow also must take more account of the concerns of others when promoting its own security. Its former satellites understandably take fright at Mr Putin’s senseless sabre-rattling. When Moscow makes threats, they huddle closer to the west, and Russia accuses the US of increasing its influence on Russia’s borders. Tensions grow and everyone feels less secure. Instead of scrapping old arms control treaties, the US and Russia should be developing relevant new agreements.