The Cold War ended more than 15 years ago, but the legacy of the Soviet Union’s breakup still divides governments. At a recent high-level Brussels meeting, Washington and other Western capitals clashed with Moscow over its lingering military presence related to “frozen conflicts” in Georgia and Moldova.
In a closing chairman’s statement to the Dec. 4-5 ministerial meeting of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht described European political-military affairs as “anemic, if not stagnant.” In particular, he said, “we are not closer to a solution than a year ago on Moldova and Georgia.”
At the November 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, Russia pledged to withdraw its military forces from the two former Soviet republics. Russia’s commitments to Georgia were part of a political act tied to a revision of the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and Moscow’s vow to vacate Moldova was noted in the summit’s political declaration.
But these promises remain unfulfilled. Apart from Moscow’s reticence to let go of its foreign outposts in Georgia and Moldova, the withdrawal has been complicated by the location of Russian troops and weapons in separatist regions inside each country.
In Georgia, Russian forces are in the process of leaving two bases, Batumi and Akhalkalaki, by the end of 2008; but some 300 Russian “peacekeepers” occupy one base, Gudauta, in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. A larger contingent of about 1,250 Russian troops is encamped in Moldova’s separatist region of Transdniestria.
The Kremlin says its soldiers prevent hostilities from breaking out, but Georgia and Moldova contend Moscow is meddling in their affairs. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told the recent OSCE meeting that Russia’s “credibility as an honest broker of the peace process has long been shaken,” while Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Stratan said his country wished to be “free of any form of foreign military or quasi-military presence.”
Led by the United States, Western governments have sided with Georgia and Moldova. Speaking Dec. 4 to reporters attending the Brussels meeting, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns asserted that “if both countries are to be fully sovereign, independent, and truly in control of their territory, then the Russian troops should leave.”
Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, emphasized a day earlier that “it is critical that there be only peaceful solutions to these so-called frozen conflicts.” He noted, “[T]hese [conflicts] seem obscure, but if they go wrong, they’re not obscure.”
The United States and its 25 fellow members of NATO are trying to exert some diplomatic pressure on Russia to withdraw its forces as soon as possible. Specifically, NATO countries are refraining from ratifying the adapted CFE Treaty. This agreement from the 1999 Istanbul summit would replace the original treaty’s bloc and regional deployment limits on major conventional arms with national limits. (See ACT, November 1999.)
All 30 states-parties to the 1990 agreement must ratify the 1999 version for it to enter into force. Moscow is eager for this to happen because the updated accord would relax constraints on Russian arms concentrations on its territory and allow other countries to join the regime. The Kremlin is upset that some NATO members, particularly Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, have no arms limits because they are outside the original treaty, which has no accession option.
Moscow has repeatedly blasted NATO countries as blocking entry into force of the adapted CFE Treaty. In Brussels Dec. 4, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated a warning that the NATO position “brings into question the viability of the [CFE] Treaty itself.”
The United States and its allies, however, fault Russia for the delay. “Ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty by my government and many others still awaits Russia’s fulfillment of the remaining commitments that were made at Istanbul,” Burns said Dec. 4.
De Gucht further stated, “As for the CFE Treaty, it is hostage to the nonimplementation of the Istanbul commitments, and Istanbul itself is hostage to the nonresolution of the frozen conflicts.” He contended that possible solutions are “now well known” but “what is lacking in most cases is the political will to strike a deal.”
Prospects of this political will emerging soon appear dim. Russia and Georgia continue to disagree over the purpose of a proposed German-led international inspection of Gudauta, and multinational talks on Transdniestria remain suspended.Yet, in what one OSCE official described Dec. 8 to Arms Control Today as a “small step forward,” Russia and Transdniestria permitted 35 representatives from OSCE members to conduct a Nov. 13, 2006, visit to the main Russian ammunition depot at Colbasna. This marked the organization’s first visit there since Russia last removed some of its estimated 21,000 metric tons of munitions from Moldova in March 2004. Russia has rebuffed Western government requests for follow-on actions.