- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday slammed U.S. defense policies in Europe and said Moscow would stop observing a key arms-control accord with the United States and NATO if Western nations did not ratify changes to the pact in short order.

Striking a feisty, nationalistic tone in his annual address to Russian lawmakers, Mr. Putin also gave his clearest pledge to date that he would step down as planned next year after two terms as president, despite rampant rumors in Moscow and elsewhere that he would stay on.

Mr. Putin said a new president would deliver next year’s state of the nation speech, but he steadfastly refused to declare his choice as successor.

“It is premature for me to declare a political will,” he said.

Mr. Putin’s speech was a clear escalation of the war of words with the Bush administration over post-Cold War military policy in Europe.

The two sides have feuded over U.S. plans to install parts of the missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The United States contends that the modest system is directed against any nuclear attack from Iran or another rogue state, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday dismissed as “ludicrous” Russian fears that the system could stymie Moscow’s massive arsenal.

“Let’s be real about this,” Miss Rice told reporters in Oslo ahead of a two-day meeting of NATO officials and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“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.

Miss Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates co-authored an opinion piece that ran in Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazette and top European newspapers yesterday defending the missile-defense system and denying that it was aimed at Russia.

Mr. Putin was clearly unconvinced and linked his unhappiness over the missile-defense plan to a stinging criticism of the failure by NATO nations to approve changes to the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which Russia has ratified. The treaty is designed to limit the number of aircraft, tanks and other non-nuclear weapons deployed on the continent.

“Our partners are behaving incorrectly, to say the least,” Mr. Putin said. “They are using the current situation to build up a network of military bases near our borders. What’s more, they also plan to deploy elements of a missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.”

The United States and other Western powers say they will not go forward on the CFE Treaty until Russia honors a pledge to remove its troops from outposts in Georgia and Moldova, both former Soviet states.

It was not clear what Mr. Putin meant in announcing a “moratorium” of Russian observance of the CFE pact.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in a telephone briefing after the speech, said Russia first planned to ask NATO nations whether they planned to ratify the changes before taking any action.

But Mr. Lavrov reportedly told NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Oslo that the moratorium was in effect.

While boasting of Russia’s surging economy and deep resource base, Mr. Putin in his speech repeatedly depicted the country as under assault from shadowy outside interests seeking to undermine Russia’s sovereignty.

“There is a growth in the flow of money from abroad for direct interference in our internal affairs,” he said. “There are those who, skillfully using pseudo-democratic rhetoric, would like to return to the recent past — some to loot the country’s national riches, to rob the people and the states; others to strip us of economic and political independence.”

Mr. Putin’s 72-minute speech, interrupted repeatedly by applause, was delayed two days because of the death Monday of former President Boris Yeltsin, who resigned in 1999 to clear the path to power for Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin praised Mr. Yeltsin for “laying the foundation” for Russia’s post-Soviet successes. Lawmakers observed as moment of silence before the speech in Mr. Yeltsin’s honor.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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