14th Nov 2018

Russia raises temperature in east-west military row

  • "I consider it expedient to announce a moratorium on Russian fulfilment of this treaty (...)" (Photo: NATO)

Relations between Russia and the West have suffered another blow after Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced he was ready to pull out of a key arms control treaty, linking his decision to US plans to build a missile defence system in eastern Europe.

"Our partners are conducting themselves incorrectly to say the least, gaining one-sided advances," the Russian president said in his annual state of the nation address on Thursday (26 April).

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Mr Putin went on to accuse the United States of "using the complicated situation to expand military bases near our [Russia's] borders. Moreover they plan to locate elements of a missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland."

The Russian president suggested Moscow should freeze its commitments under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty - signed at the sunset of the Cold War – which places limits on the number of conventional weapons and military deployments across the continent.

"I consider it expedient to announce a moratorium on Russian fulfilment of this treaty until all countries of NATO, without exception, ratify this treaty," Mr Putin said.

He was referring to the fact that NATO states had not ratified the 1999 updated version of the arms treaty, demanding that Russia first withdraws its troops from breakaway territories in Georgia and Moldova.

NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he will seek further clarification of Russia's intentions during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers and Russian diplomats in Oslo this week.

But Mr Putin's words have sent ripples of anxiety through the trans-Atlantic club. "[Russia's] message was met by concern, grave concern, disappointment and regret," Mr de Hoop Scheffer said.

The US' plans to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic have put relations between the two world powers under the biggest strain since the Cold War ended, with Europe caught in the middle.

Moscow does not accept Washington's argument that the system is to counter threats from Iran and has refused a US offer to allow Russian inspectors to visit the Polish missile silos to verify the story.

Reacting to the Putin speech, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said it was "ludicrous" to believe that the US missile shield could be aimed against Russia.

"The Russians have thousands of warheads. The idea that you can somehow stop the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent with a few interceptors just doesn't make sense," Mrs Rice said in Oslo, ahead of the NATO-Russia meeting.

Wider problems

While potentially the most worrying, the new east-west military dispute is not the only problem on the table: the EU, US and Russia also disagree strongly on the future of Kosovo.

The EU and Russia are unable to start talks on a new bilateral treaty, with new EU states like Poland and Lithuania complaining that Russia is using trade and energy as political weapons against its old vassals.

But even on a day-to-day level, EU-Russia talks seem to lack goodwill, with the German EU presidency refusing Moscow's request to discuss Polish lustration as part of a human rights dialogue at a working group meeting with Russia on 2 May.

"Our discussions look like a Turkish bazaar - if we present a list of discussion points they don't like, they barter, by putting forward their own list," an EU official told Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

EU and China perform tricky diplomatic dance

EU and China relations kicked off 15 years ago after signing a strategic partnership. Trade has increased dramatically but human rights and other issues remain tricky as the two seek to defend international law and international trade.

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