MOSCOW: Russia has suspended participation in a key European arms control treaty, saying it will halt NATO inspections of its military sites and no longer limit the number of its tanks and other heavy conventional weapons.
The move on Saturday was likely to strain relations with the West, already tense over US plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe and other issues.
President Vladimir Putin signed a decree freezing Russia's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), citing "extraordinary circumstances ... which affect the security of the Russian Federation and require immediate measures," the Kremlin said in a statement.
Russia and the West are already at odds over US plans to build a radar site in the Czech Republic and place missile interceptors in Poland.
The treaty, between Warsaw Pact and NATO members, was signed in 1990, at a time when the then Soviet and NATO troops faced each other in Central Europe. It was amended in 1999 to reflect changes since the breakup of the Soviet Union and collapse of the Warsaw Pact, adding the requirement that Moscow withdraw its forces from the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia.
Russia has ratified the amended version and had slowly moved to withdraw its forces over recent years, but the United States and other NATO members have refused to commit to the revised treaty until the withdrawal is complete.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia could no longer tolerate a situation where it was complying with the treaty but its partners were not, and he expressed hope that Russia's move would induce Western nations to ratify the updated treaty.
"Such a situation contradicts Russia's interests," Peskov told the Associated Press. "Russia continues to expect that other nations that have signed the CFE will fulfill their obligations."
The suspension will take place 150 days after Russia officially notifies all the nations concerned of its intention.
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."
The White House said it regretted the Kremlin's move.
"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," US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement.
In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai criticized the decision. "NATO regrets this decision by the Russian Federation. It is a step in the wrong direction," Appathurai said. Britain's Foreign Ministry also expressed concern over the move.
The treaty is seen as a key element in maintaining stability in Europe. It establishes limitations on countries' deployment of tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, attack helicopters and combat aircraft.
Withdrawal from the treaty would allow Moscow to build up forces near its borders. But Russian military analysts have said Russia's move was a symbolic raising of the ante in the missile shield showdown.
Source: China Daily/agencies