US and Nato officials were on Thursday scrambling to understand Vladimir Putin’s surprise threat to pull Russia out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, a cornerstone of security on the continent.
The accord is a guarantee against the remilitarisation of Europe, the risk of which has now all but vanished.
But a moratorium could halt Russia’s co-operation with the CFE's transparency and inspection regime, which has played an important role in confidence-building by demonstrating compliance with arms limits. Moscow has said it is unfair that the treaty restricts movement of military equipment within its own borders.
The Russian president linked his call for a moratorium partly to US plans to site elements of its missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. He alleged European countries were not fulfilling their own treaty obligations, adding that he believed Russia was the only country doing so.
“This gives us full grounds to declare that our partners are, to say the least, behaving incorrectly, using this situation to build up military bases near our borders,” Mr Putin said. He added that new Nato countries such as Slovenia and the former Soviet Baltic states had not joined the CFE, despite agreements that they would.
Mr Putin said he considered it “expedient” to declare a moratorium until all Nato countries “without exception” ratified a revised text of the treaty from 1999 and started observing it.
The US and other Nato countries have long refused to ratify the revised text unless Russia delivers on commitments to pull out troops from enclaves in the former Soviet states of Georgia and Moldova. Although Russia has struck a deal with the Georgian government to withdraw troops from Georgia, it maintains military “peacekeepers” in the breakaway Moldovan enclave of Transdnistra.
Mr Putin’s comments came as a surprise as Russia had in recent weeks been linking its opposition to missile defence with threats to withdraw from a different agreement, the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty. But Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia’s upper house, said the CFE moratorium was Russia’s “first asymmetric response” to US missile defence plans – leaving open the possibility of further responses later.
“This fits a pattern of behaviour that we've seen over the past decades with things such as Nato enlargement," said Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defence at the London-based Centre for European Reform. "First there's a proposal, then the Russians oppose it, causing European soul-searching, but in the end the decision gets implemented."
●The EU and Russia on Thursday discussed a possible early warning mechanism to spot potential crises that could affect energy supplies, the EU said, Reuters reports from Geneva.