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European Conventional Arms Treaty in Limbo

Wade Boese

Nearly seven years ago, 30 countries agreed on a revised set of European conventional arms limits to replace caps originally negotiated when the Soviet Union existed and Europe was divided into two hostile military blocs. Yet, the outdated limits remain in effect as NATO and Russia continue to quarrel over the necessary actions for bringing the new limits into force.

The latest NATO-Russian clash occurred May 30-June 2 in Vienna at the third review conference of the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. This accord establishes equal caps, as well as deployment zone limits, on the battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters that NATO and the now-defunct Warsaw Pact could station between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. In November 1999, the 30 CFE states-parties concluded an adapted CFE Treaty that essentially replaced the bloc and zone limits with weapons ceilings for each country. (See ACT, November 1999.)

But the original agreement will remain in force until all 30 CFE states-parties ratify the adapted version. To date, only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine have done so. Led by the United States, NATO countries are postponing ratification until Russia fulfills 1999 commitments to withdraw its armed forces from Georgia and Moldova.

At the recent review conference, Russia complained bitterly about NATO’s inaction and offered a plan for bringing the adapted treaty into force before the end of 2007. It also suggested that the states-parties provisionally apply the revised agreement’s terms starting Oct. 1.

Moscow is eager for the adapted agreement to enter into force because it provides Russia with greater flexibility on where it stations its armed forces within its territory and contains a provision for adding countries to the regime and having them be bound by arms limits. Russia charges that NATO might deploy large amounts of weaponry in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—three NATO members that share borders with Russia and are not parties to the original CFE Treaty, which contains no accession option.

Joined by Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, NATO members rejected Russia’s proposals, insisting that Moscow must first end its military deployments in Georgia and Moldova. The conference ended in acrimony and without consensus agreement on a final document.

In a June 5 statement after the conference, the Kremlin denounced NATO’s position on Georgia and Moldova as “false and unfounded.” It further declared that the current CFE limits “had largely become obsolete and lost contact with reality” and stated Russia would conduct a “thorough analysis” of the conference outcome for drawing “conclusions concerning…implementation of the present treaty and dialogue with the Western countries on CFE Treaty problems.”

In a speech to the lower house of Russia’s legislature, the Duma, two days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s unhappiness. “We do not intend to make it look [like] the 1990 treaty has functioned normally and that we are satisfied with it,” Lavrov said. He also asserted Russia has “done everything” to bring the adapted treaty into force.

Moscow’s record on meeting its past pledges, however, is mixed. On March 31, Russia finally concluded an agreement on closing two Soviet-era military bases in Georgia, at Batumi and Akhalkalaki, by the end of 2008. In the November 1999 CFE Final Act, which was a political document adopted in conjunction with the adapted CFE Treaty, Moscow had committed to completing these negotiations in 2000.

In 1999, Russia had also pledged to vacate another former Soviet military base at Gudauta by the end of 2000. But use of the base, located in the separatist region of Abkhazia, is still being disputed by Georgia and Russia. Tbilisi charges that Russian military forces still occupy the base, but Moscow contends the remaining contingent of some 300 troops are peacekeepers. The two governments have been trying unsuccessfully to agree on terms for an outside inspection of the base to assess its status.

Moscow has made much less progress in departing from Moldova. An estimated 1,400 Russian troops and an ammunition dump totaling almost 21,000 metric tons remain in the separatist Transdniestria region. Russia last removed military equipment from this area in March 2004. Russia had pledged in 1999 to withdraw from Moldova completely by the end of 2002.

Russia’s recent blustering is reportedly making some NATO members, such as Germany and Turkey, nervous about how Moscow might respond to NATO members maintaining their firm stand on Russia withdrawing from Georgia and Moldova. But a U.S. government official interviewed June 8 by Arms Control Today said the alliance is “hanging together.” The official added that the general view of CFE Treaty states-parties, despite Russia’s rhetoric, is that the accord is “working well.”