Oslo (AFP) April 26, 2007
A dispute over US plans to station anti-missile bases in eastern Europe escalated Thursday as Russia froze a key defence treaty in a move that raised "grave concern" among NATO allies. In heated NATO talks in Oslo, Norway, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov warned that Russia was to halt its application of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and could even pull out if the allies did not endorse it.
"It means that we will halt the compliance of our obligations under the treaty," he told reporters, after launching what was described by a US official as a 20-minute "diatribe" against NATO.
His remarks came after Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a state of the nation address, called for the freeze in response to the US missile shield plans.
The CFE treaty was signed in 1990 in Paris by the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the former Warsaw Pact to limit troop and hardware deployments in Europe.
It was adapted in Istanbul in 1999 following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, in order to limit deployments on a country-by-country basis.
NATO states have refused to ratify the new pact on the grounds that Moscow has failed to honour commitments made in Istanbul to withdraw Russian forces from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Russia's involvement in the CFE was a treaty obligation "and everyone is expected to live up to treaty obligations."
But Lavrov countered that "the balance has been impaired for a long time and seriously in favour of NATO. The CFE was a very valuable treaty and that has been made valueless".
He expressed hope that the allies would eventually ratify the adapted pact, but said: "I didn't hear today any kind of desire for the urgency of that."
"All I heard today was the same old tune about the Istanbul commitments, about the situation of Moldova and Georgia."
Lavrov said that Russia, one of only four countries to have ratified the adapted CFE, found itself "in a position where we don't want to be the only actors in a theatre of the absurd."
Scheffer, who described the two hour session of the informal NATO Russia Council as lively, said the allies were deeply concerned by Moscow's move to place a "defacto moratorium" on the treaty.
"That message was met by concern, grave concern, disappointment and deep regret because the allies are of the opinion that the CFE treaty is one of the cornerstones of European security," he said.
US officials said Lavrov had railed against NATO over issues ranging from enlargement to the planned missile shield extension, which will see 10 interceptors based in Poland and a radar tracker in the Czech Republic.
"He listed a litany of complaints about NATO," a senior official said, but added that the remarks may have backfired on Russia by consolidating support among the allies for the shield, meant to counter "rogue states" like Iran.
Lavrov noted that the shield leaves gaps in its coverage of Europe, with Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey left outside.
"This shows that the americans are not interested in defending Europe," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, reported Lavrov as saying.
However "the pushback (from NATO countries) was universal, including by allies who are reserved on missile defence," the official said.
But he rejected thoughts of a return to the Cold War.
"I don't think its about to boil over. I think this is in the area of politics rather than something much more serious," he said.
Earlier Thursday, Rice complained that Russia was applying Cold War logic to a defensive proposal aimed not at Moscow but at countering the emerging threat of ballistic missiles in the hands of "rogue states" like Iran.
"Let's be real about this," she said.
"The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic return is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it," she said, in her own Cold War slip by referring to the ex-Soviet Union.
earlier related report
Speaking ahead of talks with her NATO allies and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Rice suggested that Moscow's thinking on the shield, which Washington says is aimed at countering "rogue states" like Iran, is a holdover from the Cold War era.
But in her own Cold War slip, Rice went on to refer to the former Soviet Union in her response to Russia's protests over the US plan to station missile interceptors in eastern Europe.
"Let's be real about this. The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic return is clearly ludicrous and everybody knows it," she said during a joint press conference with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere.
"The Russians have thousands of warheads. The idea that somehow you can stop the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent with a few interceptors just doesn't make sense," she said.
Washington announced in January that it wanted to set up 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic, and hopes to have the network operational by 2013.
Russia fears the system could target its missile arsenal and start a new arms race, and it disagrees on the US assessment that Iran could obtain weapons within a decade that would have the range to strike at Europe.
Russia's protests over the missile plan soared to a new level Thursday when Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to withdraw from a landmark Cold War-era arms treaty limiting military forces in Europe.
Putin said Russia's complaints about the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty would be raised later Thursday at the meeting here of the ministerial NATO-Russia council.
In a state of the union speech, Putin linked the US missile plans to the CFE treaty, stating: "It is high time for our partners to deliver their contribution to arms reduction, not just in word but in deed."
He said the missile defence plan, if carried out, would mark an unprecedented deployment in Europe of US strategic weaponry and said this was an issue that should be of concern not just in US-Russian bilateral relations but on the continent as a whole.
Rice said Washington was "perfectly willing to spend as much time as we need to to demystify for the Russians what we are doing."
"But we have to continue it on the basis of a realistic assessment of what we are proposing, not one that is grounded in the eighties," she said.
earlier related report
"NATO allies attach great importance to the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and its ratification," he told reporters in Olso, ahead of informal talks between alliance foreign ministers.
The treaty was signed in 1990 by the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the former Warsaw Pact.
It was adapted in Istanbul in 1999 following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the enlargement of NATO, but NATO states have not yet ratified the new pact, arguing that Russia must first withdraw troops from Georgia and Moldova.
"We also know that there are still a number of hurdles in the way called the Istanbul commitments," noted Scheffer, before talks later Thursday in the so-called NATO-Russia Council with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
In a state of the nation address earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: "It would be appropriate to announce a moratorium on Russian adherence to this treaty until it has been ratified by all NATO countries."
"I suggest this issue be raised in the Russia-NATO Council and, in the event there is no progress in negotiation, that we consider terminating our obligations under the CFE," he said.
Scheffer said: "This is a subject that will, without any doubt, be discussed. I expect Sergei Lavrov later this afternoon to explain the words of his president."
Putin's threat brings new tensions to NATO-Russia relations.
Ties have been strained over US plans to extend its missile shield into former Soviet satellite states and the chance that Russia might veto a plan to give supervised independence to Kosovo, where NATO has 17,000 troops based.
earlier related report
On the first of two days of informal talks, starting in Oslo, Norway around 1030 GMT, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will defend the US plan to erect its "star wars" style shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Moscow claims the shield, due to be in operation by 2013, could upset the strategic balance or start an arms race, and it disputes US claims that "rogue states" like Iran could soon develop missiles capable of reaching Europe.
In line with its heightened rhetoric on other issues, like energy or the possible use of its UN Security Council veto over Kosovo, Russia has reacted testily to a US offer of missile and other military cooperation.
"What we see in the American offer are several aims which do not address the principal, that is a joint analysis of the threat," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who will confont the NATO allies around 1600 GMT.
Apart from doubting Iran's ability to be able to launch warheads into Europe in the next decade, Russia is concerned the shield will grow beyond the 10 planned interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic.
"We know from experience that when you have a system it keeps developing, it cannot stop," Russia's ambassador to NATO, Konstantin Totsky, warned last week.
Washington also has some convincing to do among its NATO allies.
While they agree that Iran, and to a lesser extent North Korea, do indeed pose a potential missile threat, they are concerned that the shield's new footprint will not cover all of members Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey.
To protect them, the alliance is considering whether it could "bolt on" its planned theatre missile defences -- a short to medium range system normally used to protect troops and still in testing -- to the US system.
On the eve of the meeting, Rice expressed confidence that both Europe and the Russians could be convinced the shield is in their interests given the potential proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
"It's simply not possible that this could be considered a system that could in any way threaten the Russian strategic deterrent, it's just not capable of doing so," she told reporters travelling with her to Oslo.
All 26 allies will also want to deliver a strong message to Russia about the need for a quick decision at the Security Council on Kosovo's status, almost certainly a form of internationally-supervised independence.
NATO launched a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 to stop attacks by Serbian troops against Kosovo's separatist minded ethnic Albanian majority, and the alliance still has some 17,000 troops based in the province.
With the ethnic Albanians impatient to break away, NATO fears that its troops could get sucked into any violence that develops as the political process over Kosovo's future drags on.
Russia, a strong ally of Serbia, rejects the notion that independence should be imposed on a province Belgrade considers an integral part of its territory, as it could encourage separatists elsewhere, such as in the restive Caucasus.
But Rice said there would be nothing to gain from delaying Kosovo's independence any longer.
"We aren't going to improve the possibilities for a stable situation in the Balkans by delay. We are going to have to act," she said.
"Serbia has nothing to fear from the international community. It has everything to gain by closer association with Europe and Eureopan instititutions."
Separately, the ministers will assess progress in Afghanistan -- NATO's biggest and most ambitious operation ever -- amid signs that an expected spring offensive by Taliban rebels has not been as strong as first feared.
No new calls for reinforcements are expected, and Rice said talks would focus on "the need for better coordination between civilian and military activity ... as well as looking at how we can continue to seek and receive contributions to the war effort."
earlier related report
"I will try to remind our Russian partners that Russia was informed earlier about the American plans," Klaus said in an interview with ITAR-TASS news agency. He was referring to Washington's insistence that it has kept Moscow fully informed.
"This system is in no way aimed against Russia and can't be aimed against it," he added.
Klaus is due to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin and other officials on Friday. He will also visit the grave of Russia's first post-Soviet president Boris Yeltsin, who died on Monday.
The visit comes as the Czech Republic is holding talks with the United States on deploying part of an expanded missile defence system on Czech territory.
The US plans involve deploying a radar system in the Czech Republic and interceptor rockets in Poland.
The United States says the system is not directed against Russia but is aimed at protecting against attack by "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea.
Russia has portrayed the plans as a dangerous incursion that could spark a new Cold War.
In an interview on Thursday with Kommersant newspaper, Klaus said he saw little chance of pulling out of talks with the United States.
"The Czech Republic has started negotiations on deployment of a radar and I don't see them being revised," he told Kommersant.
In Prague, Russia expert Karel Svoboda from Charles University, said earlier that missile defence was the main item on Klaus' agenda, but he was downbeat about the likely outcome.
"Missile defence is the main issue in Czech-Russian relations at the moment, but I do not expect a breakthrough from Klaus' visit," Svoboda told AFP.
Later in his visit, Klaus was to visit the oil-rich province of Tatarstan to discuss cooperation, ITAR-TASS said.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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