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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Russia Casts Doubt on Conventional Arms Pact

Wade Boese

President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian leaders recently ratcheted up warnings that Moscow might freeze or end participation in a treaty limiting conventional weapons in Europe if some long-running disputes with NATO are not soon resolved.

In an annual address to Russian lawmakers, Putin said April 26 that Moscow would “declare a moratorium on its observance” of the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which restricts the number and location of battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, and heavy artillery that states-parties can field in Europe. Putin added that if talks with the 26-member NATO alliance did not yield results, Russia will “examine the possibility of suspending our commitments” under the CFE Treaty.

For days and weeks after the speech, there was confusion about when the moratorium would take effect and whether Putin was threatening that Russia might pull out of the treaty.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted a Kremlin source April 26 as saying Russia would withdraw from the treaty if nothing changed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov similarly told reporters the same day in Oslo, Norway, that Russia’s “withdrawal from [the] CFE [Treaty] will become imminent” if Moscow’s concerns go unmet.

Still, on May 9, NATO spokesperson James Appathurai told reporters, “I don’t think the full details of what President Putin meant are fully clear yet.”

Appathurai’s comment came a day before Russian General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the general staff, visited NATO headquarters in Brussels. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted Baluyevsky as telling reporters there that lawyers in Russia’s foreign and defense ministries were analyzing “legitimate opportunities for a moratorium.”

A Russian official told Arms Control Today May 21 that the “moratorium is not immediate.” Without mentioning a possible treaty withdrawal or termination, the official further explained that Russia would “suspend implementation if NATO does not respond positively.”

U.S. and other NATO-member government officials said in May Arms Control Today interviews that Russia had not altered its behavior under the CFE Treaty since Putin’s speech. They noted Russia has made some regular treaty notifications and agreed to a treaty inspection.

The accord does not allow a state-party to suspend implementation. A treaty withdrawal option exists if a country feels that “extraordinary events…have jeopardized its supreme interests.” A minimum 150-day advance notice of an intended withdrawal is required by the treaty.

Consequently, a Russian move to suspend implementation would likely be judged by other states-parties as noncompliance. Compliance issues are supposed to be resolved in the treaty’s Joint Consultative Group.

Putin’s speech came amid increased sparring by Washington and Moscow over a U.S. plan to deploy 10 strategic missile interceptors in Poland (see page 30 ), but Russian officials deny any tie between the recent CFE Treaty policy and the interceptor base.

For several years, Moscow has been seeking to have the 1990 accord replaced by a November 1999 “adapted” CFE Treaty that imposes less stringent restrictions on Russia. Unlike the original treaty, the updated version also permits additional countries to join and adopt weapons limits. This appeals to Russia because it is upset that some newer NATO members, particularly Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, currently have no arms constraints.

The adapted treaty cannot enter into force and legally replace the original accord until all of its 30 states-parties ratify the revised version. Only four—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine—have completed this step.

NATO members are refusing to ratify the adapted treaty until Russia fulfills promised military withdrawals from Georgia and Moldova. These pledges are known as the Istanbul commitments, after the summit at which they were made. The adapted CFE Treaty was finalized at the same gathering. (See ACT, November 1999. )

The Russian military is belatedly making progress in leaving Georgia, but a similar effort in Moldova halted unfinished in March 2004. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

Kremlin officials frequently criticize the NATO linkage and complain about being bound by what they deride as an obsolete agreement. In his Oslo remarks, Lavrov stated that Russia “finds itself in a situation where it simply does not want to participate in a theater of the absurd.”

Washington and other NATO capitals are urging Russia to uphold its obligations. Referring to the CFE Treaty as “one of the most important treaties of the 20th century,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a May 15 interview with the Russian radio station Ekho Movsky that Russia should address its concerns “in the context of the treaty rather than trying to get out of the treaty.”

NATO governments also are reiterating that they will continue to delay ratifying the adapted CFE Treaty until the Russian military is out of Moldova and Georgia. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said April 26 that “the allies attach great importance to ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty, but we have things like the Istanbul commitments which have to be fulfilled.”