In a move many observers related to U.S. plans to install an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 14 signed a decree stating that Russia would suspend its participation in the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE).

The treaty limits the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters each of its 30 signatories can deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. It calls for reports on the location of the weapons systems, and provides for inspections. Originally signed in November 1990, the pact was revised in 1999 after the Soviet Union broke up and former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact alliance began to join NATO.

Putin’s decree said Russia would suspend its obligations under the agreement after 150 days because of “exceptional circumstances affecting the security of the Russian Federation and requiring immediate attention.” The suspension would become effective in mid-December. Analysts pointed out, however, that Russia did not withdraw from the treaty.

As the immediate cause of the suspension, the Russian government cited the failure of NATO countries, including the alliance’s new members in Eastern Europe, to ratify the 1999 revisions to the treaty.

“The agreement in its present form has outlived itself,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak. “The USSR and the Warsaw Pact no longer exist. Meanwhile, NATO continues to expand, exceeding the borders foreseen by the treaty, let alone the fact that some of the NATO countries are not restricted by any obligations at all.”

Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, told Russia’s Interfax news agency, “Russia can’t just twiddle its thumbs when it sees the Americans taking root in the Baltic and Caucasus countries and strengthening their positions in East European countries. When NATO’s steam engine is directed toward us, we simply must respond.”

NATO, in turn, called for a special conference with Russia to discuss the situation. NATO spokesperson James Appathurai called the Russian decision “a step in the wrong direction” both for Russia and for Europe.

Russia contends that while it and former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine have ratified the CFE’s 1999 revision, none of the other signatories have done so. NATO countries counter that the 1999 treaty requires Russia to withdraw troops from Moldova and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, and say they will not act until Russia does so. Russia has peacekeeping troops in Georgia and a battalion guarding former Soviet ammunition depots in Moldova.

Putin had said in April that Russia would suspend the agreement because it was threatened by the U.S. plan to build a radar system and deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly against a possible missile attack from Iran. His subsequent counteroffer to site the anti-missile system at a former Soviet base in Azerbaijan was rejected by the Bush administration. On July 16 Bush and Polish President Lech Kaczynski vowed to go ahead with the system.

Russian officials have sharply criticized President Bush for the unilateral U.S. abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, considered by most arms control and disarmament analysts to have been the linchpin of the system of arms agreements that helped prevent a “hot war” between the U.S. and USSR.

In a telephone interview, Center for Defense Information Senior Analyst Philip Coyle also cited the Bush administration’s role in making the first move. Coyle called both countries’ actions “tragic,” especially in view of the great difficulties involved in negotiating arms agreements, and the anti-missile system’s lack of demonstrated ability to function.

Moscow’s concerns that NATO is continuing Cold War-era efforts to surround and isolate Russia have been heightened by NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia — all former Warsaw Pact countries — have joined the U.S.-led alliance, and three more countries, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, are waiting in the wings.