Russia rebuffs NATO talks offer on arms pact
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Wednesday rejected a NATO offer to hold a special conference on a key European arms pact and instead proposed working on a new agreement, local news agencies quoted a top defense ministry official as saying.
President Vladimir Putin announced on Saturday Russia would pull out of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, a landmark pact limiting post-Cold War military strength.
NATO said it was "very concerned" at the pullout and suggested Russia should join an extraordinary conference to discuss its concerns about the treaty.
"I don't see any big reason to have such a conference as the positions of NATO on CFE have not changed," Interfax news agency quoted Yevgeny Buzhinsky, the head of the Russian defense ministry's international agreement department, as saying.
Either all parties should agree to modify the current version of the CFE treaty to address Russian concerns or they should "show political will and move to consultations and negotiations to work out a new agreement" he said.
Ideally, Buzhinsky said a new pact should be worked out that better reflected the current situation.
NATO played down the significance of the Russian call to replace the CFE treaty, saying it was hard to keep up with Russia's different positions on the issue.
"Let's not overdramatise this. Let us have a sober discussion," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said. He added the 26-nation Western defense alliance would continue to abide by the treaty.
Putin has said Russia will freeze its obligations under the treaty because most NATO countries have failed to ratify the latest version of the pact that was amended to take into account the post-Cold War situation.
NATO members have declined to ratify it until Russia withdraws all its troops from ex-Soviet Moldova, as it pledged to do in 1999 when the pact was signed.
Amid strained ties with the United States and key European Union countries, such as Britain, the fate of the CFE treaty has provoked concerns about the Kremlin's more assertive foreign policy. Presidential elections will be held here next March.
Signed in 1990 and updated in 1999, the CFE treaty limits the number of battle tanks, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters deployed and stored between the Atlantic and Russia's Ural mountains.
Buzhinsky also said the United States and Russia should work on concluding a "simpler" Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as START) limiting nuclear weapons to replace the current pact which expires in December 2009, RIA news agency reported.
Russia, he said, had proposed a new agreement to replace the START treaty but Moscow had received no response from Washington.
"We must not allow a vacuum ... so we proposed the U.S. think about what could come to replace START-1, something simpler, lighter," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, later named START-1, was signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George Bush, the father of the current president, in July 1991.
It went into effect in December 1994, and tied the United States and Russia to reducing long-range nuclear forces by 30-40 percent.
Buzhinsky also proposed to "interested countries" the use of a radar base being built in Armavir, in southern Russia, to monitor Iran.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels, James Kilner and Conor Sweeney in Moscow)
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