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Europe Eager to Preserve CFE Treaty
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Wade Boese

Many European governments are increasingly anxious about the future of a treaty limiting conventional arms in Europe, but officials say there should be no cause for immediate alarm if Russia suspends implementation of the accord. The Kremlin maintains support for an updated version of that treaty and, in a related move, recently withdrew some Russian military forces from Georgia.

Completed the year before the Soviet Union’s 1991 disintegration, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty placed equal caps on the battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters that the two superpowers and their allies could deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. Aiming to avert massive surprise attacks by either bloc, the treaty limited how many forces could be stationed in central Europe and concentrated in Europe’s northern and southern regions, the so-called flanks.

Referred to as a “cornerstone” of European security, the CFE Treaty is typically hailed for leading to the destruction of more than 60,000 weapons and building confidence and trust among its states-parties through an extensive verification regime. Last May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deemed the accord “one of the most important treaties of the 20th century.”

But with the Soviet Union’s collapse and NATO’s expansion to include 10 new members, including former Soviet allies and republics, the treaty’s value has waned in some eyes, most notably in Moscow. Consequently, CFE states-parties in 1999 negotiated an adapted version of the treaty, which among other things replaces the bloc arms limits with national weapons ceilings. (See ACT, November 1999. )

All 30 of the original treaty’s states-parties must ratify the adapted treaty for it to take effect, but only four have done so. The 22 CFE Treaty states-parties that are NATO members have been linking ratification of the adapted treaty to Russia fulfilling military withdrawal commitments regarding Georgia and Moldova. Russia made those pledges at the same summit at which the adapted treaty was completed.

Moscow contends the issues should not be linked and that the adapted treaty must be brought into force as quickly as possible to supplant the original treaty. One of Russia’s many criticisms of the older pact is that four NATO members (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia) are not party to it and therefore do not have any arms limits. The four cannot join the original treaty because it lacks an accession provision, but they will be able to accede to the adapted treaty after it enters into force.

With U.S.-Russian tensions escalating over a Bush administration plan to install strategic anti-missile systems in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin in July announced Russia would stop implementing the original CFE Treaty in six months unless NATO addresses Russia’s raft of concerns with the accord. In November, the Russian parliament’s two chambers approved the possible Dec. 12 suspension.

Contemplating a Suspension

The United States and its European allies are urging Russia not to carry out its threat. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier co-authored an article published Oct. 29 in the newspapers Le Figaro and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung warning that “an erosion of the CFE Treaty could spark new arms races and create new lines of confrontation.”

Several government officials from different European states told Arms Control Today in November interviews that the two foreign ministers’ concerns were principally of a long-term nature and that NATO members would work to prevent further confrontation even if Russia ceased implementing the CFE Treaty. Almost all of the officials asked not to be named and requested their country not be identified because of the sensitivity of the current situation.

All the officials agreed that the best result would be if Russia opted to “suspend its suspension.” A minority expressed hope that Russia might not act on its threat, but a majority seemed resigned that Moscow would not apply the brakes.

Russia has not been clear on what a suspension might entail. Russian officials have suggested that participation in inspections and data exchanges would cease, but they have not said whether Russia will stop attending meetings of the Joint Consultative Group, the treaty’s Vienna-based forum for implementation discussions. Moreover, Kremlin officials previously stated a suspension would not lead Russia to exceed its limits or redeploy its forces, but more recent media reports have quoted General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the general staff, as saying that such options would be kept open.

All the European government officials interviewed by Arms Control Today said NATO members likely would continue initially to provide data exchanges and notifications if Russia stopped. The purpose of doing so, they said, would be to maintain those channels for Russia to resume cooperation and to signal to other countries that one country’s choice not to abide by the treaty does not provide leeway for other states-parties to eschew their legal obligations. Aside from Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine are the other seven non-NATO CFE states-parties.

The officials generally downplayed possible Russian force buildups, at least in the short term, but acknowledged that concerns are greater for countries nearer Russian borders, such as the three Baltic countries, Norway, and Turkey. Several of the officials stressed, however, that “security cannot be divided.”

A Norwegian official interviewed Nov. 19 by Arms Control Today said his country has both “political and practical reasons” for preserving the CFE framework. But he noted that if Moscow were to increase its forces anywhere, it would most likely be in southern Russia.

A prolonged Russian suspension, some of the officials said, eventually could compel NATO countries to re-evaluate their defense planning. Michael Wyganowski, a former Polish diplomat who worked on CFE Treaty issues and is now executive director of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, told Arms Control Today Nov. 15 that absent data from Russia and arms limits on Russia, other European military planners would have to alter their “assumptions.” He speculated that if Russia walks away from the CFE regime, it could be a sign that Moscow sees military power playing a bigger role in its policy “toolbox.”

Still, the European government officials stressed the importance of not overreacting to a Russian suspension. In such a case, one official stated there would be no need to “panic,” while another official said it would be crucial to keep the “dialogue and doors open” with Russia.

During the past several months, the United States and its NATO allies have sought to persuade Russia to stave off the suspension, but some say the dialogue has been mostly one way. At multilateral meetings near Berlin and in Paris and at U.S.-Russian bilateral meetings in Moscow and Geneva, U.S. and European officials say the West offers proposals while Russia reiterates its problems and adds to its demands. One European official familiar with the talks told Arms Control Today Nov. 15 that there was “no sign that the Russians were seeking solutions to avoid a suspension.”

Georgia and Moldova

NATO members maintain they have insisted on conditioning the ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty in order to avoid having Georgia and Moldova feel abandoned. Both those governments want Russia’s forces to depart their two territories, and a key principle of the adapted treaty is that foreign deployed troops must have host-state consent.

Russia’s withdrawal from Moldova stalled in 2004, leaving approximately 1,200 Russian troops and about 21,000 metric tons of ammunition behind. But the Kremlin has been slowly reducing its forces in Georgia. In mid-November, Russia finished withdrawing its forces from the second of two bases it promised in 2005 to vacate. (See ACT, July/August 2005. ) With that step, only about 200 Russian troops, which Moscow says are peacekeepers, remain in Georgia.

A complicating factor in completing the withdrawals from Georgia and Moldova is that the remaining Russian forces are located in separatist territories. NATO members have volunteered financial assistance to facilitate the withdrawals and proposed that international peacekeepers replace the Russian troops. Moscow has declined these offers, claiming in part that the local ethnic Russian populations would not feel as safe with non-Russian soldiers.

Some NATO members in recent months have suggested starting ratification of the adapted treaty in conjunction with continued Russian withdrawal activities. On Nov. 5, David Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, testified to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that the “goal” would be to “send a constructive signal to Moscow that NATO stands by this treaty.”

The Flanks

Despite its discontent with the original treaty, Moscow also is not entirely happy with the adapted treaty. For instance, Russia dislikes provisions that would allow some NATO members to host temporary deployments of foreign forces above their arms limits.

Another top Kremlin complaint is that the adapted treaty maintains modified versions of the original treaty’s flanks limits on Russia. Those caps constrain the amount of forces that Russia can deploy on its own northern and southern territory, including the unstable Caucasus region. Moscow is calling for the abolishment of its flanks limits.

There is no consensus among NATO members about what should be done with the flanks. But many of the officials interviewed by Arms Control Today said it would be impractical to “open up” the adapted treaty to deal with the flanks before the agreement entered into force. One official volunteered that a potential compromise could be a pledge by NATO to review the flanks issue after the adapted treaty’s entry into force.

Kouchner and Steinmeier appeared to hint at this option. Contending that all the current CFE Treaty disputes cannot be resolved in the short term, the two foreign ministers suggested governments should “proceed on the understanding that even after the entry into force of the Adapted CFE Treaty, the door will remain open for further amendments.”

Posted: December 1, 2007