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Russia warns it may quit key arms pact in 5 months
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Saturday it would suspend its participation in a key pact limiting military forces in Europe in five months' time unless a compromise was found on updating the treaty.
The move follows months of verbal sparring with Europe and Washington on a range of fronts, including U.S. plans for a missile shield in eastern Europe, proposed independence for Serbia's Kosovo province and Moscow's energy policies.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree suspending Russia's role in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty for reasons of "national security."
NATO, Washington and the European Union expressed regret and disappointment at the Russian move.
The pact was adopted in 1990 to limit the number of tanks, heavy artillery and combat aircraft deployed and stored between the Atlantic and Russia's Ural mountains.
Russia criticizes the West for failing to ratify a version amended to take into account the new post-Cold War situation. Talks last month with NATO states ended without progress.
The pact requires signatories to notify other member states 150 days before suspending participation. The Foreign Ministry said it would start the notification process on Saturday.
"The Russian moratorium on the CFE pact does not mean that we are fully shutting the door to dialogue," it said.
If no solution was found in the five-month period, Russia would stop providing information and stop allowing inspections of its heavy weapons.
"Russian threats have materialized and I don't exclude that more steps could follow," said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think-tank.
"If there is no agreement with the United States on the missile shield ... Russia could potentially go ahead with its threats to retarget (at Europe) and redeploy missiles."
A NATO spokesman said of the Russian announcement: "If this is confirmed the Secretary General very much regrets this decision. The allies consider this treaty to be an important cornerstone of European security."
A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the EU also regretted the Russian move. Britain too called the CFE a "cornerstone" of European security.
"We're disappointed Russia has suspended its participation for now, but we'll continue to have discussions with them in the coming months on the best way to proceed in this area, that is in the interest of all parties involved and provides for security in Europe," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told Reuters the Russian decision was "disconcerting".
"Perhaps this is a pretext, one that may be related to the plans to build the missile shield facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic," he said.
"It could also be related to internal reasons, a way of showing Russia's strength ahead of the presidential campaign."
Putin is due to step down in March 2008, when his second term expires. Anti-U.S. and anti-Western rhetoric traditionally grows in Russia before elections. In February Putin stunned the West by accusing Washington of trying to dominate the world.
Moscow has since threatened to create an OPEC-style gas cartel and deploy missiles in its Western enclave Kaliningrad.
One source of friction over the CFE treaty is NATO's insistence on preserving "flanking arrangements" which ban large concentrations of forces and materiel near some borders.
Russia objects to that provision because it limits Russian troop movements on Russian territory, although Moscow says its border areas have become more unstable since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
Russia wants cuts in NATO troop levels in outlying regions to reflect the accession to the alliance of eastern European states bordering Russia since 1990.
NATO states have said treaty changes depend on Russia withdrawing troops from the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia, but Russia rejects any link between the two issues.
(Additional reported by Chris Borowski in Warsaw and James Vicini in Washington)
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