updated 2/15/2007 10:30:35 AM ET 2007-02-15T15:30:35

A top Russian general said Thursday that Moscow may unilaterally drop out of a key Soviet-era arms reduction treaty with the United States that banned medium-range nuclear missiles, Russian news agencies reported.

Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the military’s General Staff, said Russia could pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan in 1987.

The decision would depend, he said, on whether the U.S. completed plans to deploy components of a missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic — plans that have drawn sharp criticism from President Vladimir Putin.

“We shall see what our American partners do,” Baluyevsky was quoted by Interfax, ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti as saying. “Their actions to deploy missile defense sites in Europe are inexplicable.”

Putin has said he does not trust U.S. claims that the planned European missile defense system was intended to counter threats from Iran, and warned that Russia would take retaliatory measures.

At a security conference in Munich on Saturday, Putin said the arms reduction treaty was outdated, and that many nations had since developed their own medium-range missiles eliminated by Russia and the United States.

The statement was part of a speech in which he blasted U.S. policy in unusually blunt terms and said that Moscow views NATO’s expansion to its borders as a threat.

‘Overly aggressive’
Relations between Washington and Moscow have been strained by Russia’s opposition to what Putin called an “overly aggressive American foreign policy.” Moscow has been particularly critical of the U.S. intervention in Iraq.

The United States, meanwhile, is concerned about what it sees as the erosion of political freedoms in Russia, and by Moscow’s alleged use of its vast oil and natural gas reserves to reward friends and punish foes in some of its former Soviet satellite states.

The 1987 treaty was hailed at the time as a breakthrough that helped ease East-West tensions and end the Cold War. Under its provisions, the Soviet Union eliminated 1,850 missiles with ranges of between 300 to 3,400 miles. The United States destroyed about 850 of its missiles.

Both nations still maintain huge arsenals of nuclear weapons ready for use on short notice. According to the Web site of the Nuclear Information Project, the U.S. has 5,735 deployed nuclear weapons and Russia has 5,830.

Baluyevsky said the treaty allows both Russia and the United States to walk away from it at any time. Following on Putin’s remarks, he said the deployment of medium-range missiles by many other nations provided a strong argument for leaving the treaty.

Yuri Solomonov, the head of Moscow-based missile manufacturer that designed and built the latest Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, said it was ready to resume the production of medium-range missiles if such a decision was made by the Kremlin, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

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