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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Georgian Conflict Clouds Future Arms Pacts

Wade Boese

Russia's August military intervention into and diplomatic recognition of two separatist Georgian regions casts doubt not just on their future political status but also that of a pair of already languishing treaties limiting battlefield weapons in Europe.

The fate of the 1999 Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty for several years has been tied to the presence of hundreds of Russian military "peacekeepers" located in the disputed Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the separatist region of Transdniestria in Moldova. NATO members have maintained they will not ratify the arms treaty, preventing it from taking effect, until Russia withdraws its forces as it pledged to do when it joined 29 other countries in signing the adapted agreement.

If brought into force, the adapted accord would introduce fresh limits for those countries on their tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters, replacing similar caps that currently apply from the 1990 CFE Treaty. (See ACT, November 1999. ) Russia last December suspended its participation in the original treaty, faulting NATO members' failure to act on the adapted treaty and their unwillingness to adjust some arms limits to Russia's satisfaction. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

In the aftermath of Russian-Georgian fighting that erupted Aug. 7 and ended with an Aug. 15 ceasefire, it appears that the Russian contingent in the two Georgian enclaves, whose leaders have declared a permanent break from Georgia, will be larger and more heavily armed than before. For example, Russia allegedly is deploying some land-mobile short-range SS-21 ballistic missiles to South Ossetia. Russian forces also seem to be settling into positions in a so-called security zone as well as other checkpoints in Georgia outside the independence-minded regions.

U.S. officials decried Russia's piecemeal and slow military exit. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to reporters Aug. 18 while en route to a NATO meeting that saw the 26-member alliance suspend its consultative forum with Russia, said, "[I]t is our very strong view that it didn't take that long for Russian forces to get in [to Georgia]; it really shouldn't take that long for them to get out."

Several present and past U.S. and foreign government officials interviewed in August by Arms Control Today said the Georgian situation does not bode well for the Adapted CFE Treaty. Jeffrey McCausland, a former director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council, said Aug. 15 that the recent conflict and its aftermath put the accord into a "deep freeze." The other current and ex-officials, many who asked not to be identified, voiced similar or starker assessments.

McCausland argued it will be "difficult" for some time to try and bring the adapted treaty into force because the leaders of NATO in general and the leaders of Georgia and Russia in particular are going to be more reluctant to "make major concessions" or "back down" with no agreed settlement on the contested Georgian territories. The Kremlin's Aug. 26 recognition of the two regions' claimed independence likely will further all sides taking harder lines. Another former senior U.S. official familiar with CFE Treaty matters told Arms Control Today Aug. 14 that it was "unlikely" any countries would soon "go full bore with clever diplomatic solutions" to move ahead on the Adapted CFE Treaty.

During the past several months, NATO had proposed to Russia that some alliance members would begin their national ratification processes of the adapted treaty in parallel with Russian troop withdrawals out of the breakaway regions in Georgia and Moldova, in contrast to conditioning ratification on the completion of the pullouts. (See ACT, May 2008. ) Only Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia have completed ratification of the adapted agreement.

Moscow for many years has pressed NATO capitals to follow suit and bring the revised treaty into force because it imposes more lenient limits on Russia's weaponry deployed in its Caucasus region and contains an accession clause, unlike the original treaty, that enables additional countries to adopt weapons ceilings. Former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members but are not party to the original CFE Treaty, meaning they have no current arms limits, which Russia says is unacceptable.

The past and current U.S. officials generally agreed that Russia was not thinking about the Adapted CFE Treaty when it ordered its forces into Georgia to respond to what Russia claims were Georgian provocations. Instead, McCausland argued, Moscow's priority was sending a message to Georgia, other Russian neighbors, and NATO about Russia's determination to preserve what it sees as its traditional sphere of influence. Severely criticized by Russia, NATO in April declared its intentions to eventually invite Georgia and Ukraine to become members. (See ACT, May 2008. ) NATO Aug. 19 reaffirmed that goal.

Just as the Adapted CFE Treaty's fate most likely was not at the forefront of Russian concerns when it initiated its military foray, the treaty's future will not be that high on any country's agenda very soon, speculated most of the officials interviewed by Arms Control Today. Michael Wyganowski, a former Polish diplomat who headed his country's delegation to CFE Treaty meetings in 1999, noted Aug. 20 that the accord was being relegated further to the sidelines by a conflict that actually underscored the importance of limiting conventional arms holdings.

The former senior U.S. official said that, in the near term, governments will have to think on a strategic level about the new period of relations Europe, Russia, and the United States appear to be entering. The official dismissed the notion that it might be a "return to the Cold War" but also contended that the assumption by many of the past two decades of a "benign European security environment" had to be questioned.

At a tactical level, some government officials of NATO members say the Georgian conflict might lead alliance members to discuss sooner than expected scaling back their implementation of the original CFE Treaty. When Russia started refusing inspections and halting treaty information exchanges and notifications as part of its suspension of the agreement, NATO members said they would continue to fulfill their treaty obligations but warned that they might stop if Russia failed to reverse course. Moscow has yet to revive its participation or give any indication that it plans to do so.

Foreign governments and international monitors are still trying to sort out how many Russian forces took part in the Georgian operation and where they were originally based. If Russia had been implementing the original CFE Treaty at the time, it is unlikely the amount of heavy weapons systems involved would have required treaty notifications on Moscow's behalf because of the presumed temporary nature of the deployments. The adapted treaty, however, includes more rigorous requirements on notifications regarding weapons-levels changes or transit and, if it had been in force, likely would have obligated Russia to share more information on its military movements before and during the Georgian conflict.