By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia is ready for talks with NATO on limiting conventional military forces in Europe as long as the Western alliance does not bring politics into the picture, Russia's new envoy to NATO was quoted as saying on Thursday.
Alexander Grushko's remarks indicated Russia is prepared to return to discussions about limits on non-nuclear forces five years after President Vladimir Putin suspended compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty.
But the envoy's caveat suggested Russia will not accept questions about the legitimacy of its forces in two breakaway Georgian regions it recognized as independent states after a 2008 war, or in Moldova's Transdnistria region.
"The main thing is that consultations, if not to say negotiations, should start without any attempts at linkages with political issues," Grushko said in Moscow, according to the Interfax news agency.
"If an interest in arms control, and not some political issues, is placed at the center, there is a chance to begin a very focused conversation about what kind of control is needed today," state-run RIA quoted him as saying.
"The ball is in Europe's court. We await signals from our European partners that would bear witness to their interest."
The timing of the announcement, shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election, may have been meant to show the United States and its NATO allies that Russia is open to constructive talks on arms control but will not give ground easily.
Agreed by members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact in 1990, a year before the Soviet Union fell apart, the treaty aimed to establish a balance of conventional armed forces, such as battle tanks, heavy artillery and combat aircraft, at reduced levels.
The treaty was updated in November 1999 in Istanbul with leaders of 30 nations setting limits on the forces between the Atlantic and the Ural Mountains on a national basis instead of the bloc-to-bloc totals set in the 1990 document.
Russia suspended participation in 2007, protesting at NATO nations' refusal to ratify the new version and complaining that the pact was outdated because several former Warsaw Pact states had since joined NATO.
The NATO nations' refusal to ratify stemmed from earlier disputes with Russia over deployments in Georgia and Moldova.
The United States said last year it would no longer provide Russia with annual notifications or military data called for in the treaty, but that it hoped Moscow would eventually return to the pact.
(Reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)