U.S.- Russian Exercises Postponed by Moscow

MOSCOW, Russia -- Citing legal problems, Russia's Defense Ministry on Tuesday abruptly postponed joint military exercises with American forces that were scheduled to start later this month in central Russia.

Russian officer fires from U.S. assault rifle at Exercise Torgau 2005

The exercises were drawing increasing criticism from the Communist Party and other groups angry over the prospect of U.S. troops on Russian soil.

Disagreements over "the status of U.S. personnel who planned to participate in the exercises" brought on the Russian decision, an unidentified ministry official told the Russian news agency Interfax.

Granting U.S. requests on this question was impossible, the official said, "because any decision by Russia not to exercise its jurisdiction over arriving foreign contingents runs counter to the laws of the Russian Federation."

The Defense Ministry declined to explain the status issues or why they arose now between two countries that conducted joint exercises in Russia as recently as last year.

Nearly 300 U.S. and Russian troops held joint maneuvers outside Moscow in an exercise called Torgau, named after the German town where American and Soviet troops met up in the final days of World War II in Europe.

The ministry now wants a ratified agreement on the issues that concern it, Interfax reported.

In Washington, a Pentagon official said the U.S. side had received no official word of a postponement and held out the possibility that the exercise might go ahead if remaining issues with the Russians can be worked out.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions remain open, the official said the size of the U.S. force has been a point of contention.

"There has been a lot of discussion about how to get this exercise done, what the comfort level is with the size of the Army unit going in," the official said.

This was to be the third phase of the extended Torgau exercise, aimed at increasing the ability of U.S. and Russian troops to operate together in the field.

The first phase was conducted in Russia in 2004, followed by joint operations in Russia and Grafenwoehr, Germany, in 2005.

Tensions between the two governments have been rising recently. U.S. officials have criticized setbacks to democratic development in Russia and the country's alleged use of energy as a diplomatic weapon.

The ambitions of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to join the NATO alliance have also soured relations.

U.S. criticism and policies in the region are often seen here as an attempt to undermine Moscow's influence with its neighbors.

Alexander Khramchikhin of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow said he believed the postponement was not based on a technical issue. "The deeper reason is the worsening of Russian-American relations. . . .

This was a political decision. The Ministry of Defense just carried out the order."

The exercises, to involve unarmed U.S. personnel, were to be held near Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow.

The two countries have continued to hold joint exercises outside Russia, but the Kremlin may fear that the presence of U.S. troops could become a galvanizing issue for some of its domestic opponents.

"Emotions being heightened over these maneuvers by certain political forces do not match the scope of the planned exercises," a Defense Ministry official told Interfax.

Last month, a planned exercise between U.S. reservists and Ukrainian forces in Crimea, a Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, was called off after weeks of demonstrations by local residents who drew expressions of support from Russian lawmakers.

In Russia, the Communist Party had vowed that protesters would close off all roads leading to the firing range near Nizhny Novgorod and would stage demonstrations in cities across Russia.

"These exercises have no other meaning except an attempt at aggression and building a bridgehead in one of the key regions of the Russian Federation where nuclear centers and major industrial enterprises are concentrated," Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party, told reporters Monday in Moscow.

"We should not let them here into the heart of Russia. If they want to visit historic places, let them come as tourists, and we will show and tell them everything."

The governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Valery Shantsev, accused the Communists of stirring up public emotions to secure votes in upcoming regional and federal elections.

Source: Washington Post