The CFE Treaty and European Security

Daryl G. Kimball

A mere 20 years ago, massive numbers of conventional and nuclear forces stood poised for attack on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. NATO and Soviet bloc countries were finally able to draw down their arsenals, ease tensions, and build trust with verification through a series of landmark arms control agreements concluded in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Much attention has been focused on the impact of the treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in solidifying the end of Cold War hostilities. No less important is the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which slashed NATO and Warsaw Pact armies and their equipment and effectively eliminated the possibility of a blitzkrieg-style land attack across the East-West frontier.

Over the years, the CFE Treaty has provided an unprecedented level of transparency, predictability, and stability to European security and the U.S.-Russian relationship. The treaty has led to the destruction of more than 60,000 heavy conventional weapons and more than 4,000 on-site inspections. The resulting post-Cold War military balance has erased the old rationale for maintaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which was to counter the Soviet bloc's conventional military strength.

All of this may soon change, however, if CFE member states do not abide by core treaty principles, adopt an updated version of the treaty, and avoid confrontational steps that put the treaty in jeopardy. The Bush White House and the Kremlin are already at odds over U.S. plans to deploy strategic missile interceptors in eastern Europe, and they disagree about the future of START.

Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to suspend implementation of the CFE Treaty Dec. 12 unless the United States and its NATO allies address Russia's concerns. Moscow's key grievance is that NATO countries have failed to ratify a 1999 adapted version of the treaty, which would relax some arms limits on Russia and open up the treaty regime to additional members, including new NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia.

Led by the United States, NATO members have maintained they will not ratify the updated treaty until Russia completes military withdrawal commitments from Georgia and Moldova made in conjunction with the adapted treaty. A core element of the adapted CFE Treaty is that individual states give their consent to any deployment of foreign military forces within their territory. Approximately 1,200 Russian military personnel and massive ammunition stockpiles remain in Moldova, and another 200 personnel remain in Georgia.

To convey its goodwill and support for the adapted CFE Treaty, the United States reportedly has endorsed a more flexible course of action, allowing individual NATO members to start some ratification steps but not complete the process. They have reiterated their support for replacing Russian forces in Moldova with international peacekeepers.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said that the U.S. proposals represent "a step to the right direction." Yet, after the latest round of talks in November, Lavrov said, "[S]o far there is no progress." Russian officials have been vague about what the threatened suspension of treaty implementation might entail, but they have hinted that it might unilaterally redeploy some of its forces and end participation in inspections and data exchanges.

Such a course of action would be counterproductive. Other states may be tempted to unilaterally interpret the 1990 treaty, and some legislatures might slow, not hasten, their consideration and ratification of the adapted treaty. Over time, the absence of good information about Russia's capabilities may lead some Western military planners to adjust their calculations, which could lead to new conventional force buildups in Europe.

Key players must now take the right steps to avoid confrontation between former adversaries. Putin must resist internal pressure to undermine the CFE Treaty as a means to lash out at the United States over what Russia perceives as a lack of respect for its interests. The CFE Treaty still serves Russia's vital interests, particularly because it maintains reasonable limits on NATO forces. The Kremlin must also do its part and finally fulfill its commitments to withdraw its residual forces in Georgia and Moldova, which are not vital to security in those regions.

For their part, NATO member states should initiate the process of ratifying the adapted CFE Treaty within the next several weeks. If Russia suspends implementation of the 1990 treaty, other CFE member states should continue to abide by their treaty commitments. Doing so would avoid a total unraveling of the CFE regime and keep the door open for Russia to return to the treaty. CFE members should also strengthen the regime by agreeing to even lower force limits.

Moscow and Washington have enough troubles to solve without provocative new actions that further undermine the international arms control framework. It is time for renewed leadership to bring the adapted CFE Treaty into force in order to maintain security and cooperation across Europe's old dividing lines.