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Russia Threatens to Withdraw from the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened last week during his final state-of-the-nation address to withdraw from the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. The treaty limits the number and location of non-nuclear weapons around Europe. He linked the decision to Washington’s plan to station elements of an anti-ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief of RIA Novosti Russian News and Information Agency, says Russians see President Putin’s decision to suspend the implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe as part of an “attempt to defend Russian national interests and to renegotiate relations with the West.” But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has dismissed Russia’s concerns about the U.S. missile defense plan as “ludicrous,” saying that the proposed missile shield does not threaten Russia’s deterrent capability. She explained that its main purpose is to protect the United States and its transatlantic allies against missile threats from Iran.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA New Now’s International Press Club, Igor Zevelev says that Russia nonetheless has two legitimate concerns. First, the missile defense shield – once established – could be quickly expanded and then become a strategic threat to Russia. Second, Russians believe that NATO has broken earlier commitments, such as not establishing bases in former Warsaw Pact countries and expanding into the former Soviet Union.

Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says President Putin may have scored a propaganda coup. And in fact the German reaction has been more sympathetic to the Russians than to the Americans. But, he notes, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been careful not to criticize Washington publicly. Mr. Rueb calls the German Foreign Minister’s suggestion that the proposed missile defense shield could spur another arms race in Europe and change the balance of power in Europe “quite a stretch.”

But to some political analysts, the most interesting element in President Putin’s final state-of-the-nation speech was his restatement of his intention to leave office next year. According to Igor Zevelev, that is what made the most headlines in the Russian media. Under the current constitution, the president can be elected for two consecutive terms, although rumors abound about the possibility of a third term after Mr. Putin’s current term expires in 2008. Mr. Zevelev says that in his speech President Putin sent the “most powerful signal” yet that he would indeed leave office then.

However, Dmitri Siderov, Washington correspondent for Kommersant, Moscow’s political and economic daily, says he is skeptical. Mr. Siderov says there is a “consensus among the Russian business elite that they want Putin to stay.” If he does step down, Dmitri Siderov says, there should be at least an agreement with his successor. Igor Zevelev notes that, because Mr. Putin has an 81% approval rating, his endorsement would help whatever successor he might favor. In Germany and other European nations, Matthias Rueb adds, people expect President Putin to remain a major power broker after he leaves office.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above