OSLO (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin froze Moscow's commitments under a European arms control pact on Thursday, escalating a row between the United States and Russia over U.S. plans to build a missile shield in eastern Europe.
Putin's announcement came hours before NATO and Russian officials discussed a project which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted was no threat to Moscow, brushing off such Russian concerns as "purely ludicrous".
Asked to comment on Putin's move to suspend Russia's implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) pact negotiated in the months following the Cold War, Rice insisted Moscow should fulfill its commitments.
"These are treaty obligations and everyone is expected to live up to treaty obligations," Rice told a news briefing in Oslo before foreign ministers met their Russian counterpart.
NATO expressed dismay after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed Putin's announcement to NATO ministers in a charged encounter which one U.S. official described as a "litany of complaints" by Lavrov.
"That message was met by concern, grave concern, disappointment and regret," said alliance Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "The allies are of the opinion that the CFE is one of the cornerstones of European security."
The CFE Treaty was negotiated in the months after the Cold War among the then-22 member states of NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries with the goal of achieving verifiable reductions in conventional military equipment.
Only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine have ratified an adapted 1999 version, with NATO states holding out until Russia withdraws its remaining troops from Georgia and Moldova.
KOSOVO PUSHED OFF THE AGENDA
The immediate consequences of Putin's announcement were not clear, with some analysts saying the main relevance of the pact had been in the immediate post-Cold War era when the two former foes feared a new confrontation.
"There is no strategic confrontation between Russia and NATO," said Hans-Henning Schroeder of the Berliner Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik thinktank. "The CFE is no major relevance, it is empty in substance."
One U.S. official saw Putin's announcement as politically motivated. A NATO source noted that one effect of it had been to prevent the NATO-Russia talks broaching the independence plan for Kosovo which the West fears Moscow may veto.
"Kosovo was supposed to be on the agenda but there just wasn't time," said the alliance source.
Putin's move was the latest broadside from Moscow against the U.S. scheme to base 10 missile interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic from 2012 to pre-empt what it sees as a threat from Iran and North Korea.
In his annual speech to both houses of parliament, he accused NATO allies of ignoring clauses in the CFE and said the U.S. shield plan had only made matters worse.
"In this connection, I consider it expedient to declare a moratorium on Russia's implementation of this treaty -- in any case, until all countries of the world have ratified and started to strictly implement it," Putin said.
However, a Putin spokesman, Dmitry Pesko, told Western reporters in a teleconference the moratorium would only come into effect if the Russian complaints were not addressed, while Putin aide Arkady Dvorkovich said Russia had no plans to exit the treaty immediately and wanted consultations with NATO.