Russia: Kremlin niggles on treaty disturb Nato: Dramatic details emerge of the final hours of the crisis as Kremlin takes tough stance on disarmament

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RUSSIA has puzzled and worried Western governments by taking a tough stance on a key European disarmament treaty.

Nato gave strong support to Boris Yeltsin yesterday after the crushing of the parliamentary rebellion. But diplomats at its Brussels headquarters admitted they were surprised and disturbed by Russia's decision to complain officially about the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.

Nato ambassadors yesterday declared 'their support for President Yeltsin as the democratically elected leader of Russia', according to a statement. They also 'emphasised Nato's determination to continue to work to forge closer ties to Russia and all of the states of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe'.

However there has been unease about some aspects of Russian behaviour for some time. For months Russia has been raising doubts about the CFE treaty, which it complains limits its ability to reinforce its borders in the troubled Caucasus region. The treaty, which imposes cuts on the number of troops, artillery and armoured vehicles that members of Nato and the former Warsaw pact are permitted, was agreed in 1990. One section deals with force levels on Russia's north and south flanks.

Diplomats in Vienna, where officials monitor implementation of CFE, said that last week Russia raised its concerns to an official level at a meeting of the Joint Consultative Group. It also sent a letter to some heads of government, including John Major, in mid-September. 'It is not the problem that is new, but the level of complaint,' said an official. Diplomats in Vienna denied that Russia had sought to pull out of the treaty, saying that it sought to modify or suspend Article 5, which deals with the flanks.

But the treaty cannot be modified or rewritten, officials said yesterday. It is considered one of the bulwarks of European security. Turkey, the closest Nato member state to the Caucasus, is thought to be especially concerned.

A diplomat said there was little obvious reason why Moscow should choose to escalate the dispute when there are easier ways out of the problem. 'We have been telling them for a long time that there is plenty of flexibility in the treaty' he said. 'But for reasons best known to themselves, they have chosen not to take our advice.'

Though most officials were unwilling to guess at Moscow's motives, there was speculation that Mr Yeltsin had been pushed into action by the Russian military. 'It's no secret that the military doesn't like it,' said a diplomat, because they see it as overly restrictive. Ukraine and some central European countries share some Russian concerns about other aspects of the treaty.

Some officials are linking this tougher stance with an apparent change of heart over Nato membership. At around the same time as the CFE letter another was sent saying that Nato should not take in new members from central and eastern Europe, only weeks after Mr Yeltsin had apparently said that Russia would not object to Poland joining. Alliance sources said Pavel Grachev, Russia's defence minister and Andrei Kozyrev had raised objections when Mr Yeltsin negotiated the agreement with President Lech Walesa. Russia has also sent out contradictory signals on troop withdrawals from the Baltic republics.

So far these rifts have been viewed with understanding and the alliance has taken care to build relations with Russia. At its special summit in January the alliance will consider issues relating to central and eastern European security, and is likely to offer a package that incorporates 'sweeteners' for Russia, alliance sources said recently.

(Photograph omitted)