Dispute Over Russian Withdrawals From Georgia, Moldova Stall CFE Treaty

Wade Boese

Russian lawmakers and President Vladimir Putin recently approved a five-year-old treaty limiting conventional weapons stationed in Europe. Yet, the treaty’s prospects for entering into force anytime soon are dim because of Western concern over Moscow’s failure to fulfill related commitments on removing its armed forces from Georgia and Moldova.

The Russian legislature’s lower and more powerful chamber, the Duma, passed the adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty with a 355-28 vote on June 25. The Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, followed suit July 7 with a nearly unanimous 137-1 vote.

Putin signed the federal law on the treaty’s ratification July 19, but the ratification process will not be completed until Putin deposits an instrument of ratification with the treaty depository, the Netherlands.

Once Putin acts, Russia will join Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine as the only countries to have completed ratification of the treaty, which caps the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, and heavy artillery that each state-party is permitted to deploy on its territory. Treaty limits also restrict how many combat aircraft and attack helicopters may be deployed in Europe.

The treaty is a 1999 overhaul of an accord negotiated nearly a decade earlier to balance the military hardware of Cold War adversaries NATO and the now-defunct Warsaw Pact. The older version with its outdated bloc limits is currently in force and will remain so until all of its 30 states-parties ratify the adapted version.

Russia is eager to replace the original treaty because new NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have no weapons limits under the old treaty and cannot join the revised version until it enters into force. Moscow fears that NATO might take advantage of this loophole to stockpile arms near Russia’s border.

But NATO members are refusing to ratify the revised accord until Russia fulfills commitments it made to Georgia and Moldova when the adapted CFE Treaty was concluded at a summit in Istanbul. Specifically, the Kremlin pledged to finish negotiations by the end of 2000 to close Russian military bases on Georgian soil and to remove all of its troops and weaponry from Moldova by the end of 2002. Neither objective has been met.

Russian officials argue that the matters should not be linked, but the United States and NATO disagree. Visiting Moldova June 26, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that “the obligations that were undertaken at Istanbul some five years ago need to be fulfilled.”

At their summit meeting a few days later, NATO heads of state declared, “We recall that fulfillment of the remaining Istanbul commitments on the Republic of Georgia and the Republic of Moldova will create the conditions for allies and other states-parties to move forward on ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty.”

Russia and Georgia differ on how long it should take the Kremlin to vacate its bases in Georgia. Tbilisi says Russia should be able to pull out in three years; Moscow claims it will need 11. One option proposed by Georgia is the creation of a joint counter-terrorism center on Georgian territory to compensate Russia for withdrawing its forces.

Although Russian-Georgian relations appeared to be on the upswing with a June resumption of talks on the basing issue after more than a year-long halt, relations subsequently took a turn for the worse. In recent weeks, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stepped up efforts to reassert Tbilisi’s control over two separatist Georgian regions that have close ties to Russia and where one of the disputed Russian bases is located. The Kremlin has matched Saakashvili’s tough talk and action. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov warned in an Aug. 14 press conference with Rumsfeld that Georgia “is developing into a very dangerous scenario.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s withdrawal from Moldova has stalled. In 2003 the process had been moving forward, with Russia removing 42 trainloads of arms and ammunition; only one such trainload has departed this year. International officials monitoring the withdrawal estimate that about 42 trainloads of ammunition—nearly 21,000 metric tons—and 10 trainloads of military equipment remain.

Moscow contends it is not to blame for the dramatic falloff. It claims that separatists in the Transdniestria region, where the weapons are located, are blocking the withdrawal.

Russia further maintains that its roughly 1,400 troops in the region should stay because they are helping keep the uneasy peace between the separatists and the government of Moldova. Moldova has voiced its preference, however, for replacing the Russian “peacekeepers” with an international force.

A U.S. government official familiar with the status of Russia’s withdrawal stated that Russia has a mixed bag of concerns and it is unclear which will come out on top. “All that’s left is the really hard stuff,” the official added.

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.