MOSCOW Russia's parliament voted unanimously on Wednesday to suspend a key arms treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, saying the United States and NATO were using the pact to undermine Russia's defenses.
Ignoring appeals from the United States, the Duma (lower house of parliament) approved 418-0 a law allowing Moscow to stop complying with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, seen by the West as a cornerstone of European security.
The suspension, ordered by President Vladimir Putin as part of a wave of increasingly aggressive moves against the West ahead of elections, will take effect on December 12.
Russia's top general Yuri Baluyevsky said the CFE treaty, which limits the number of heavy conventional weapons deployed and stored between the Atlantic and Russia's Ural mountains, unfairly penalized Moscow.
"The current treaty fully suits the United States and NATO," Baluyevsky, the chief of general staff, told parliament.
"The treaty allows, practically without any limits, the realization of the strategy for NATO to move eastwards, carrying out the reconfiguration of the U.S.'s military presence in Europe and for constant monitoring of the composition and state of Russia's military in the European zone."
Russia had no plans to immediately deploy more forces in the West and in the Caucasus, he added, though it reserved the right to do so.
Russia's move comes after months of sparring with the United States and European Union over plans for a missile defense shield and proposed independence for Serbia's Kosovo province.
Putin, who has sought to restore the Kremlin's international clout after the chaos which accompanied the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, gave formal 150-day notice in July about suspending the treaty.
The United States, Europe and NATO have all urged Russia not to scrap the treaty, saying it is a vital guarantor of stability in post Cold War Europe. But Moscow has been adamant it will suspend the pact unless NATO agrees to major changes.
NATO did not offer immediate comment on the Duma vote but one official said the alliance's position remained unchanged.
"We do not want to see any suspension on the treaty and there are intensive consultations continuing among the parties," said the official, who requested anonymity.
MOSCOW "NOT HEARD"
Russian diplomats said Moscow was trying to send a message to the West that the treaty needed to be reworked and ratified but that the West had "not heard" Moscow's concerns.
"Russia's actions do not have an aggressive or destructive character -- they are directed not to destroy the system of current agreements but to attract attention of our partners to our concerns," said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak.
"We are not trying to bring any damage to arms control but to give an impulse to the resumption of a workable treaty," Kislyak, who deals with U.S. relations, told parliament.
The debate in parliament was full of references to how Russia had been "deceived" by the United States and NATO.
The law approved on Wednesday -- just three clauses long -- gives Putin a free hand to suspend Russia's participation in the treaty or to restore it at any time in the future.
The draft still needs final approval from the upper house of parliament and from Putin before becoming law but these steps are regarded as formalities.
The CFE treaty, signed in 1990 and updated in 1999, limits the number of tanks, combat aircraft and heavy artillery which can be deployed or stored in the vast area stretching from the Atlantic to Russia's Ural mountains.
Western partners have refused to ratify an amended version of the pact until Russia pulls its forces out of Georgia and Moldova, as it promised in 1999 when the treaty was reviewed.
Russian forces are being withdrawn from Georgia. But Russia has so far been reluctant to pull out peacekeepers from Moldova's breakaway province of Transdniestria.
Russia, unhappy about NATO's expansion eastwards into territory formerly occupied by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, says U.S. plans to open bases for several thousand soldiers in Romania and Bulgaria this year are in breach of the CFE.
NATO officials insist that the bases are not intended as permanent and thus cannot be seen as a breach.