RUSSIA engaged the West in a new round of brinkmanship yesterday when Vladimir Putin effectively tore up a vital treaty designed to end the threat of war in Europe.
In a chilling message to his adversaries, the Russian president signed a decree suspending Moscow's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, a move that will let Russia mass tanks on Europe's border for the first time in 15 years.
Coming amidst the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, the announcement - though expected - prompted immediate consternation at Nato headquarters.
"Nato regrets this decision by the Russian Federation," said spokesman James Appathurai. "It is a step in the wrong direction. The allies consider this treaty to be an important cornerstone of Euro stability."
Russia's withdrawal from the treaty represents a significant element of Mr Putin's so-called "asymmetrical response" to American plans to erect a missile defence shield in central Europe.
The president has already threatened to retrain Russia's nuclear arsenal on Europe if the project, due to be completed in 2012, is completed as proposed.
Moscow has rejected Washington's argument that the shield is meant to protect against a rogue missile strike from the Middle East, claiming that the true intention is to undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent.
The ending of the treaty is a gesture replete in symbolism. Adopted in 1990, it played a crucial role in ending the Cold War by guaranteeing peace between the Warsaw Pact and Nato in Europe.
Limiting the number of troops that could be stationed on Cold War frontlines by both sides, the treaty required Russia to move the bulk of its military hardware east of the Ural Mountains, the geographical divide between Europe and Asia. With the treaty's demise, Mr Putin seems to be declaring a return to adversarial Cold War politics.
While most commentators do not believe Mr Putin is preparing to mobilize large numbers of troops in western Russia, fears are mounting that the president could now pull out of a second treaty barring Moscow from building nuclear weapons capable of striking Europe.
Mr Putin appears to believe that the West is attempting to encircle Russia - a conviction stemming from the "coloured revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine that saw pro-Moscow leaders ejected in favour of westernisers. The proposed missile shield has reinforced that conviction.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the Russian assassin of former spy Alexander Litvinenko sprayed poison into the teapot from which he drank at a London bar.
In the first eyewitness account of the moment the former Russian spy was consigned to death, Norberto Andrade describes how, as he tried to serve drinks to Mr Litvinenko and the former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, he was deliberately distracted in order, he claims, to allow the killer to add radioactive polonium to a pot of green tea.
Mr Andrade, 67, the head barman of the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel in London, says investigators later found polonium contamination on a picture above where Mr Litvinenko was sitting, supporting the notion that the poison had been administered by a spray.
Recounting the extraordinary events of November 1 last year, Mr Andrade said: "When I was delivering gin and tonic to the table, I was obstructed. I couldn't see what was happening. It was a deliberate attempt to create a distraction. "It was the only moment when the situation seemed unfriendly and something went on at that point. I think the polonium was sprayed into the teapot."
Sunday, 15 July 2007