Far be it from anyone to cast a shadow over the famous Maine lobster. But even this fabled treat failed to work as a sweetener on Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the way to Kennebunkport, where President George W. Bush's family were receiving "friend Vladimir" earlier his month, Putin had been particularly fretting about the prospective deployment in Europe of the U.S. Anti-Ballistic Missile system (ABM), a shield against missiles that rogue countries, Iran in particular, may be able to launch in future. In addition to ABM, which Putin considers a threat to Russia, NATO failed to ratify the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) a key European arms control treaty that has been regulating the deployment of troops and the monitoring of weapons systems on the continent since 1990. Still, the Kennebunkport meeting was full of good cheer, great fishing and conciliatory hints that these newly risen U.S.-Russian tensions would soon ease up.
Nevertheless, six pounds of choice Maine lobster and two weekends later, Putin delivered on a long-promised threat. Early Saturday morning, the Kremlin abruptly announced Putin's decree to halt Russia's participation in the CFE treaty due to "extraordinary circumstances ... which affect the security of the Russian Federation and require immediate measures."
Putin's "extraordinary circumstances" are clear: first, he says missile shield in Europe will see through entire Russia's defenses all the way to the Urals; Russia seeks to counter that, but the treaty stands very much in the way. Second, NATO countries have failed to ratify the treaty's 1999 amended version a failure that Putin insists upsets the balance of forces in Europe. For their part, NATO countries hold that the amended version required that Moscow withdraw troops from Moldova and Georgia, which it hasn't completed, and refuse to ratify until Russia fully complies.
Within hours of the Kremlin's announcement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Russia will halt inspections and verifications of its military sites by NATO countries and will no longer limit the number of its conventional weapons. Russia, however, had already halted such verification visits after a CFE treaty conference held in Vienna last month turned a deaf ear to Russia's complaints; military delegations from Bulgaria and Hungary had been denied entry to Russian military units. Also last month, Russia turned down an invitation to take part in joint exercises with the U.S., Romania and Bulgaria. General Vladimir Shamanov, particularly notorious for aggressive tactics in Chechnya and now advisor to the Russian Defense Minister, said: "The Soviet Army took part in joint exercises with the Nazi Germany. Which resulted in Germany's perfidiously attacking the USSR. What trust there can be now, if the U.S. is deploying bases in Romania and Bulgaria?"
There is wide speculation that Putin's idea of "immediate measures" will be to build up its forces in border areas now that it is free of the CFE treaty. Last month, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who increasingly positions himself as Putin's hawkish potential successor, said that Russia would deploy its newly tested Iskander-M cruise missiles in is westernmost Kaliningradsky region, wedged among Poland, Lithuania and Belarus, unless the U.S. scraps its defense shield bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Ivanov's threats only infuriated Poland and made Lithuania consider asking the U.S. for deploying its ABM on its soil as well. However, cruise and new MIRVED ICBM missiles, promised to be retargeted on Europe, are not the only ace up Putin's sleeve. Other measures, like troop buildups along southern borders in the Caucasus, new pressures on Ukraine to maintain the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea beyond the 2017 withdrawal deadline, and a refusal to leave Moldova are all in the offing among other measures.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a democratic opposition leader and a rare independent member of the Duma, maintains that since the U.S. started this controversy by walking out of the ABM Treaty in 2002, there is a grain of truth in Putin's assertion that Russia was forced to respond. But Ryzhkov sees Putin's saber-rattling as "primarily an election-year message to the country: 'Your leader won't budge, no matter who formally becomes next President'." Polls show that this line works, Ryzhkov says: the Russians really buy it.
But the rest of the world may not. The European Union and NATO have already expressed their regrets about Putin's action. "It is a step in the wrong direction," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels.
In fact, as no provision for a unilateral moratorium was built into the CFE treaty, Russia's action amounts to non-compliance, strictly speaking. It might indeed be designed for domestic consumption. Or it might be just an act of blackmail in Putin's new brinkmanship with the U.S. But it also might be serious water testing on his part to see how far he can stretch his empire-building muscle and get away with it.