MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin said yesterday that in protest of U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, Russia would suspend its observance of a treaty limiting the deployment of troops and conventional military equipment in Europe.
The announcement, made in Putin's annual speech to parliament, further ratcheted up tensions between Russia and the United States over the missile system, which Moscow views as a step toward building a much larger system directed at Russia and China.
At a meeting of NATO diplomats in Oslo, Norway, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traded long-distance barbs on the growing divide, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added to the fire in a lengthy diatribe against the United States and NATO.
Rice's reaction to Putin's statement was terse. "These are treaty obligations, and everyone is expected to live up to treaty obligations," she said.
It was unclear, however, whether Russia's moratorium on observance of the treaty would have any practical effect, because the current version was never ratified by the NATO countries that signed it.
Putin, in his speech, said that if NATO signatories continued to refuse to ratify the treaty, Russia would consider withdrawing from it. While Russia has abided by it, he said, the effect has been that Russia faces restrictions on the deployment of its own troops on its own territory.
"It is hard to imagine that, for instance, the United States could restrict itself in transferring its troops in its own territory," he said. "At the same time, not only has Russia signed and ratified this treaty, but it is also observing all of its provisions."
In Oslo, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer responded sharply to Putin's declaration, which concerned the Conventional Forces in Europe pact, a treaty initially signed in 1990 and revised in 1999.
"That message was met by concern, grave concern, disappointment and regret," Scheffer said, according to wire reports.
The United States appears reluctant to publicly acknowledge Putin's concerns, with U.S. officials' repeatedly insisting that the missile-shield facilities planned could not possibly threaten Russia's massive nuclear arsenal.
Under the plan, Poland would be the site for 10 missile interceptors, and an early-warning radar system would be located in the Czech Republic. The United States is negotiating with both countries over basing rights for the system, due to be fully operational by 2013.
Rice repeated the U.S. position in Oslo. "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous, and everybody knows it," she said, making a slip of the tongue in saying Soviet rather than Russian.
Alexander Golts, military analyst of the weekly Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, described Putin's threat to withdraw from the treaty as "empty bluffing."
"Medium-range missiles are not covered by that treaty, and hence we are talking about the deployment of conventional forces and land troops," Golts said. "The Kremlin knows quite well that there is no real threat to Russian borders in Europe and that redeploying troops will be a very costly operation, and all for nothing."
In his speech, Putin noted that the treaty originally was designed as an agreement between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty requires the reduction and relocation of much of the main battle equipment then located along the former east-west dividing line, including tanks, artillery pieces, armored vehicles, and attack aircraft. It was renegotiated in 1999, adding a requirement that Russia withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova, two former Soviet republics where tensions and intrigue with Moscow run high.
Russia has not withdrawn its troops, and the revised treaty has not been ratified by most of the signatory nations, including the United States, which has withheld ratification until the Kremlin has complied with the troop-withdrawal commitments.