"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Can This Treaty Be Saved? Breaking the Stalemate on Conventional Forces in Europe

Wolfgang Zellner

Overshadowed by more pressing issues—Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and global terrorism—European security relations with Russia have deteriorated dramatically since the late 1990s. Over the last 10 years, European security policy has been increasingly dominated by unilateral and frequently confrontational approaches.

As a recent report by the EastWest Institute noted, there is “a growing desire in some quarters to punish or retaliate rather than to solve problems.”[1] This is a far cry from the principle of cooperative security to which the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) committed themselves in the 1990 Charter of Paris. Nor is it compatible with NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept, according to which a “strong, stable and enduring partnership between NATO and Russia is essential to achieve lasting stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.”[2] Although U.S.-Russian relations are currently warming up, nearly every major security policy issue relating to Europe is still highly disputed; the list includes NATO enlargement, missile defense, military bases, energy security, conventional arms control, and subregional conflicts. The 2008 Georgia war was the definitive wake-up call when, for the first time, two OSCE states went to war against each other and one state recognized the independence of two entities, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even though the other 55 OSCE states do not recognize them.

This development is all the more alarming because Europe in the early 1990s was the locus of the most comprehensive arms control regime in history. The regime’s core is the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which was signed in 1990 and entered into force in 1992. This agreement limits its parties’ holdings in five categories of military equipment that were seen as particularly relevant for initiating large-scale offensive action: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters. General limitations are complemented by regional ceilings in the center of Europe and at the “flanks” in the north and south of the treaty’s area of application, which stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals. The implementation of the treaty, which has largely been successful, is based on the detailed exchange of information and an intrusive verification system, under which more than 5,000 routine and challenge inspections have been carried out.

The treaty is based on parity between two “groups of States Parties,” identical to the members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War and their successor states. When the first members of the Eastern group of states-parties joined the Western alliance, it became necessary to adapt the treaty to accord with the changed political reality. The 1999 CFE Adaptation Agreement, which was signed at the OSCE Istanbul summit, replaced the treaty’s bloc-to-bloc structure with a system of national and territorial ceilings.[3] Regional ceilings were abolished, apart from the flank limitations. Almost immediately after the CFE Treaty entered into force in 1992, Russia became highly critical of the flank rule. As early as September 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent a letter to Western governments saying that “the cessation of the existence of the USSR, the adaptation of the Treaty to the new composition of membership—the dramatic development of several local conflicts and the large-scale withdrawal of our troops to the Russian interior” have created a new situation. “In these circumstances, the flank limitations acquire a unilateral and discriminatory character for Russia.”[4]

Today, the whole CFE regime is in jeopardy. The Adapted CFE Treaty has not yet entered into force because NATO states have not been ready to ratify it as a result of Russia’s nonimplementation of what are known as the Istanbul commitments: the complete withdrawal of its armed forces from Georgia and Moldova. Russia, in turn, does not accept any link between the legally binding Adapted CFE Treaty and its politically binding Istanbul commitments. In December 2007, Moscow unilaterally suspended its implementation of the original CFE Treaty out of frustration with the Western countries’ inaction on Adapted CFE Treaty ratification. Consequently, the Russian government no longer provides information on its treaty-limited equipment and refrains from accepting or participating in inspections. In contrast to earlier years, Russia is now demanding not only the ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty by the NATO states, but also a kind of balance between Russian and NATO forces; a definition of the term “substantial combat forces”; the accession of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Adapted CFE Treaty; and, most importantly, the “abolition of flank restrictions on Russian territory.”[5] This situation is by no means sustainable, especially because the parties are currently not engaged in negotiations. If no decisive action is taken soon, the treaty regime will collapse with incalculable consequences not only for conventional arms control in Europe, but also for the whole idea of a cooperative security policy with Russia.

Several questions need answering: What caused the serious downturn in relations? What role did the CFE Treaty play in European security policy in the past, and what will the function of the Adapted CFE Treaty be in the future? Most importantly, what options exist for re-establishing a viable regime of conventional arms control in Europe?

Origins of the Crisis

To sort out the diverse factors that influenced the CFE Treaty, it is useful to distinguish among the strategic, Euro-strategic, and subregional levels. At the strategic U.S.-Russian level, which is dominated by nuclear weapons issues, relations worsened substantially during the last decade. Relevant developments were the failure to bring into force START II, the termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by the United States, and particularly U.S. plans for a global missile defense system with elements deployed in Europe. A short-lived improvement in U.S.-Russian relations following the September 11 attacks could not reverse this general negative trend. Although conventional armaments are certainly linked to missile defense in the Russian perception, this issue was not the decisive factor in the Russian suspension of the CFE Treaty. It is not even mentioned in the decree issued on the matter by President Vladimir Putin.

The key issue at the Euro-strategic level was and is NATO’s consecutive rounds of enlargement. The first round, in 1999 (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), was still embedded in a cooperative context both by NATO’s announcement, in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, that it would not deploy nuclear weapons or “substantial combat forces” in the new member states and by the signing of the CFE Adaptation Agreement in 1999. This certainly cannot be said of the second round, in 2004. In a far tenser political environment, seven new NATO member states were accepted, among them three former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and two flank states (Bulgaria and Romania). The accession to NATO of flank states is especially sensitive, given Russia’s continuous opposition, since the early 1990s, to the flank rule that limits its equipment levels, particularly in the North Caucasus. The Russian government is thinking in terms of a military balance between the NATO states and Russia; re-establishment of the balance was one of the key demands in Putin’s December 2007 suspension decree. NATO’s April 2008 decision to accept Georgia and Ukraine as future members has further aggravated this matter.

NATO enlargement can be seen as one of the most important root causes of the CFE Treaty impasse, but NATO’s deliberate linking of the CFE Treaty and subregional conflicts provided the occasion for the outbreak of the current crisis. The CFE Treaty regime, including the Adapted CFE Treaty, has always been focused on the Euro-strategic balance of forces. Thus, its contributions to correcting subregional force asymmetries are fairly limited. With the exception of the balancing of Armenian and Azeri holdings through equal ceilings and the 1996 Florence agreement among Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and (later) Montenegro, which was modeled almost entirely on the CFE Treaty, the treaty has not had much to offer for the regulation of subregional asymmetries.

On the other hand, the linkage between the CFE Treaty and unresolved subregional conflicts, in the form of the Istanbul commitments, has substantially contributed to the undermining of the treaty. Although it might have always been clear to the U.S. government that ratifying the Adapted CFE Treaty would be possible only on the condition of the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia and Moldova, at the NATO level this position was established only at the November 2002 Prague summit when the alliance “urge[d] swift fulfillment of the outstanding Istanbul commit­ments on Georgia and Moldova, which will create the conditions for Allies and other States Parties to move forward on ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty.”[6] A statement in the German government’s 2002 disarmament report demonstrates that this position was disputed within NATO before the Prague summit:

But some states are also insisting on the fulfillment by Russia of these non-CFE-relevant commitments [i.e., with­drawal from Georgia and Moldova] contained in the Istanbul Document. This would make the ratification of the adaptation agreement dependent upon the solution of some issues of rather less importance, and there would be a danger that the entry into force of the arms control agreement, which is of such basic importance for the security and stability of the whole European continent, would be delayed or even made impossible.[7]

The basic rationale for NATO’s linkage of Adapted CFE Treaty ratification and the Istanbul commitments is the idea that Russia’s great interest in the CFE Treaty would provide enough incentive for it to contribute to the resolution of the conflicts in Georgia and Moldova and to withdraw its forces from those countries. This expectation has proven false, and the experiment of using arms control as an instrument to resolve protracted conflicts has failed. In addition, Russia has followed the Western model and has established its own linkage between the CFE Treaty and subregional issues by demanding the abolition of the flank rule for Russia before the Adapted CFE Treaty can be put into force.

History and Future of the Regime

Undisputedly, the CFE Treaty contributed substantially to ending the Cold War in a controlled way. It removed Soviet superiority in heavy conventional armaments, thereby fulfilling its primary goal of eliminating the potential for surprise attack and large-scale offensive action. It mitigated fears connected with German reunification by limiting the size of German treaty-limited equipment holdings to ceilings that had already been agreed within NATO. Also, the treaty was highly useful in dividing up the conventional arms holdings of the Soviet Union among the eight successor states that are within the treaty’s area of application, under the Tashkent agreement of May 1992. All this was done in a completely transparent manner and verified.

It is far less clear, however, how the Adapted CFE Treaty can strengthen security and stability in the future.[8] A first contribution—for some experts, the most important one—is that the Adapted CFE Treaty would continue to provide verified transparency and thus prevent mistrust and a lack of information from leading to the emergence of new security dilemmas and related buildups of armaments. That does not mean that there would be a danger of a new, all-out arms race in Europe without the CFE Treaty, but the danger of specific arms races does exist. In an open letter to the Obama administration, more than 20 former political leaders from central European countries called for “contingency planning, prepositioning of forces, equipment, and supplies for reinforcement in our region.”[9]

A second benefit is that the Adapted CFE Treaty, if brought into force, would contribute to avoiding subregional arms races. This is particularly true for Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the lifting of equal ceilings would almost certainly lead to a new arms race that would undermine the chances for a peaceful solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and could lead to new tensions between NATO countries and Russia. Another question is whether the Florence agreement can survive if its model, the CFE Treaty, collapses.

Third, conventional stability can prevent tactical nuclear weapons from assuming a larger role in Europe. If gross conventional imbalances exist, it might be tempting for Russia to deploy tactical nuclear weapons as a type of compensation.

Fourth, the impact of the collapse of the CFE Treaty would not be limited to this specific treaty but would influence European arms control in general, as well as all institutions and instruments dealing with cooperative security. It is doubtful whether the Vienna Document 1999 on confidence- and security-building measures could survive if the CFE Treaty failed.[10] More broadly, institutions such as the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council could be affected. Finally, the breakdown of cooperative security policy in Europe would have a negative impact on U.S.-Russian strategic relations. It is difficult to imagine that they could continue to improve if tensions in Europe were to rise.

Revitalizing the Regime

In recent years, there has been almost no public debate on the CFE Treaty. This has now changed significantly; in the past few months, a number of meetings and publications have looked into options for overcoming the CFE Treaty impasse. In May 2009, the EastWest Institute convened a discussion on the CFE Treaty, resulting in the publication of a paper by Jeffrey McCausland.[11] The EastWest Institute has also published a report on Euro-Atlantic security that deals with CFE issues.[12] Further, on June 10, 2009, the German Federal Foreign Office organized an informal, high-level expert meeting on conventional arms control in Europe; about 40 governmental delegations participated. The following section, which outlines three options for dealing with the CFE Treaty, builds on ideas contained in the two EastWest Institute reports as well as those contained in a book with 24 articles from U.S., Russian, and European experts, co-edited by the author.[13]

The first option is the easiest in terms of activity, but possibly the most severe in terms of consequences: do nothing, apart from starting the blame game, and wait until the treaty collapses. If nothing is done, it is only a question of time until one or more parties raise the question of whether the nonimplementation of the CFE Treaty by Russia constitutes a material breach of the treaty justifying withdrawal under Article XIX, paragraph 2 (“extraordinary events”). This option is perhaps not particularly tempting for advocates of arms control, but it certainly has its followers—all those who do not believe in negotiated arms control or who prefer unilateral military options to cooperative approaches.

The second option, NATO’s parallel action package (PAP), was introduced in the fall of 2007 and published in March 2008. NATO’s statement on the PAP says, “NATO Allies will move forward on ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty in parallel with implementation of specific, agreed steps by the Russian Federation to resolve outstanding issues related to Russian forces/facilities in the Republic of Moldova and Georgia.”[14] The PAP is the only agreed negotiating platform on the CFE Treaty, and even the Russian Foreign Ministry conceded that it “contains some positive moments.”[15] Several Russian demands raised in the context of suspension could be resolved within the PAP framework. NATO’s statement says, “NATO members that are not Parties to the CFE Treaty will publicly reiterate their readiness to request accession to the Adapted Treaty,” as demanded by Russia. In the same way, the alliance declared that NATO and Russia would develop a definition of the term “substantial combat forces.” The statement is rather vague, however, on Russia’s request for lower ceilings for the NATO countries: “[W]e would consider changes, where possible, to the level of equipment ceilings.” Russia’s main demand, the abolition of the flank ceilings for Russia, is not addressed at all.

The principal shortcoming of the PAP is the difficulty in imagining, after the 2008 Georgia war, “implementation of specific, agreed steps by the Russian Federation” (the implementation of the Istanbul commitments). A solution for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Moldova is still conceivable if Russian peacekeeping forces there are excluded from the Istanbul commitments, as suggested by one of the options in the EastWest Institute report, and if the focus is on the closure of the Russian ammunition depot in Colbasna, as proposed by other experts.[16] In this context, it is remarkable how optimistic German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were in their description of the situation in Moldova with regard to the CFE Treaty. In a joint article for this year’s Munich Security Conference, they wrote, “Through our dialogue with Russia, we wish to create the conditions for ratifying the [Adapted] CFE Treaty. A rapid solution could for example be found for the Transnistria issue so as to create a different atmosphere.”[17]

Yet, there seems to be no realistic way to resolve the issue of the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Georgia, where Russia has deployed significant levels of forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The expectation that Russian forces will be withdrawn from these two entities, even in the medium term, is as unrealistic as the hope that Russia will revoke its recognition of their independence. Therefore, the German government’s 2008 annual disarmament report was right to state that “[n]onetheless, developments in Georgia mean that the Parallel Action Package needs to be adapted with regard to the Istanbul Commitments.”[18] The only remaining question concerns the form this adjustment should take. For just as it would be counterproductive to simply insist on the Istanbul commitments in their current form, political considerations, particularly regarding the need for host-state support for any deployment of armed forces, make it all but impossible to simply drop them.

The third option of a larger “package solution,” one of the variants discussed in the EastWest Institute report, has much in common with the PAP but goes beyond it in two important elements. First, the report proposes “lifting territorial sublimits for the Russian Federation,” meaning the abolishment of the flank rule for Russia. In reality, it will be very difficult for NATO members to agree on this because of the strong opposition of Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Norway. Second, the report stipulates “negotiating reduced levels of armaments for NATO members,” which might be somewhat easier. Like the PAP, however, the report cannot resolve the question of the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia.

This problem is basically one of subregional disputes and cannot be fixed by means of arms control. That is what the Istanbul commitments tried to achieve and why they failed, even if this is not yet recognized by most NATO states. If there are disputed territories, either they have to be excluded from relevant arms control agreements, or status-neutral solutions must be found. This is possible, as evidenced by the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, where hundreds of pieces of so-called uncontrolled treaty-limited equipment exist that are under neither Armenian nor Azeri control. Although the uncontrolled treaty-limited equipment problem has been discussed again and again, nobody made its solution a condition for ratifying the Adapted CFE Treaty. All in all, there is no ready-made technical solution for this problem, which can only be resolved at a high level and probably only within the scope of an even larger package deal that goes beyond arms control. Political leaders will have to decide whether or not Georgia is important enough to block a pan-European arms control agreement.

Finally, there is broad agreement among experts that the Adapted CFE Treaty itself has become outdated in certain respects. This particularly concerns the need to introduce elements that address subregional asymmetries between small states and between small and large states, an issue where conceptual thinking has only recently started. Thus, efforts to bring the Adapted CFE Treaty into force must be combined with the launch of a new round of CFE-3 negotiations.

Cooperative Security Policy

At the moment, there are no active negotiations on the CFE Treaty. Everybody is waiting for the new U.S. policy. Although Rose Gottemoeller testified in March, during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing on her nomination to be assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, that “helping to resolve the impasse with Russia on the CFE Treaty also will be one of my top priorities,”[19] nothing is known about what a new U.S. position on the CFE Treaty might look like.

The real problem is not arms control in a more technical sense, but rather the quality of political relations among states. Consequently, one has to ask what key political problem arms control, among other means, can address. An important answer was provided by Gottemoeller, who, in an article written before she joined the Obama administration, said the key task is “no less than trying to correct the major problem that went unresolved at the end of the Cold War: how to weave Russia, and Russian security interests, into the full fabric of European security.”[20] If the CFE Treaty fails, this will become nearly impossible. If conventional arms control in Europe, in the form of the Adapted CFE Treaty and beyond, can be revitalized, it could become an essential tool for integrating Russia into Euro-Atlantic security structures. Although instruments of arms control cannot overcome basic political disagreements, they can seal political accords.

Wolfgang Zellner is deputy director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg and head of its Centre for OSCE Research. From 1984 to 1991, he worked as an adviser to a member of the German Bundestag on military and security issues, including European arms control.


1. EastWest Institute, “Euro-Atlantic Security: One Vision, Three Paths,” June 2009, p. 1, www.ewi.info/euro-atlantic-security. The author was a member of the group that prepared the report.

2. “The Alliance’s Strategic Concept,” April 24, 1999, para. 36, www.nato.int/docu/pr/1999/p99-065e.htm.

3. For an analysis of the differences between the CFE Treaty and the Adapted CFE Treaty, see Wade Boese, “Executive Summary of the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty,”Arms Control Today, November 1999, www.armscontrol.org/act/1999_11/wbno99.

4. The Arms Control Reporter, November 1993, pp. 407.D.85-86. The original flank area, according to article 5, paragraph 1(A) of the CFE Treaty, comprised Bulgaria, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Romania, and Turkey, along with several military districts of the Soviet Union: Leningrad, Odessa (today Moldova and part of Ukraine), Transcaucasus (today Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), and North Caucasus. According to the Tashkent agreement of May 15, 1992, which divided the treaty-limited equipment of the Soviet Union among its successor states, Russia was allotted 1,300 tanks, 1,380 armored combat vehicles (ACVs), and 1,680 artillery pieces. At the first CFE Review Conference in May 1996, Russia was given considerably higher flank ceilings. According to the formula “old geography, new figures; old figures, new geography,” Russia was allowed 1,800 tanks, 3,700 ACVs and 2,400 artillery pieces in the old flank zone, whereas the figures from the Tashkent agreement were now applied to a new, considerably smaller flank area. The 1999 CFE Adaptation Agreement raised the Russian ACV ceiling again, this time in the smaller flank area, from 1,380 to 2,140.

In 1990, the flank rule was of strategic importance: its aim was to ensure that armaments withdrawn from the center of Europe would not be redeployed in the flanks, creating options for large-scale offensive action there. Since the mid-1990s, however, it has lost its strategic relevance and can be considered a subregional issue today. See Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (1990), www.osce.org/documents/doclib/1990/11/13752_en.pdf; Final Document of the First Conference to Review the Operation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the Concluding Act of the Negotiation on Personnel Strength, Vienna, May 15-31, 1996, pp. 7-8, www.osce.org/documents/doclib/1996/05/13755_en.pdf; Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, p. 22, www.osce.org/documents/doclib/1999/11/13760_en.pdf.

5. President of Russia, “Information on the Decree ‘On Suspending the Russian Federation’s Participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and Related International Agreements,’” July 14, 2007, www.kremlin.ru/eng/text/docs/2007/07/137839.shtml.

6. NATO, “Prague Summit Declaration,” (2002)127, November 21, 2002, para. 15, http://www.nato.int/docu/pr/2002/p02-127e.htm.

7. “Report of the Federal Government on the State of the Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation Efforts and on the Development of Military Potential (Annual Disarmament Report 2002),” 2002, p. 87 (author’s translation).

8. See Jeffrey D. McCausland, “The Future of the CFE Treaty: Why It Still Matters,” EastWest Institute, 2009, http://www.ewi.info/future-cfe-treaty.

9. Valdas Adamkus et al., “An Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe,” July 15, 2009, http://wyborcza.pl/1,86671,6825987,An_Open_Letter_to_the_Obama_Administration_from_Central.html.

10. The Vienna Document 1999 calls for an exchange of military information, risk reduction mechanisms, military contacts, the prior notification and observation of certain military activities, and other confidence- and security-building measures. Today, many of its provisions have become outdated, and the whole document would need a thorough review. See OSCE, “Vienna Document 1999 of the Negotiations on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures,” November 16, 1999, www.osce.org/documents/fsc/1999/11/4265_en.pdf.

11. McCausland, “Future of the CFE Treaty.”

12. EastWest Institute, “Euro-Atlantic Security.”

13. Wolfgang Zellner, Hans-Joachim Schmidt, and Götz Neuneck, eds., The Future of Conventional Arms Control in Europe (Baden-Baden: Nomos Publishers, 2009).

14. NATO, “NAC Statement on CFE,” (2008)047, March 28, 2008, www.nato.int/docu/pr/2008/p08-047e.html.

15. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Russian MFA Information and Press Department Commentary on NATO’s Statement on Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe,” April 1, 2008.

16. For comparison, see Wolfgang Richter, “Ways Out of the Crisis: Approaches for the Preservation of the CFE Regime,” in The Future of Conventional Arms Control in Europe, eds. Wolfgang Zellner, Hans-Joachim Schmidt, and Götz Neuneck, p. 361.

17. “‘Security, Our Joint Mission’ - President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel’s Joint Article in ‘Le Monde,’” February 4, 2009, www.ambafrance-uk.org/Security-our-joint-mission.html. The conflict between the Republic of Moldova and its secessionist region of Transdniestria broke out in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and led, in 1992, to a war with 1,000 casualties and about 100,000 refugees. Despite 17 years of OSCE mediation, the conflict has not yet been resolved.

18. “Report of the Federal Government on the State of the Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation Efforts and on the Development of Military Potential (Annual Disarmament Report 2008),” 2009, p. 60 (author’s translation).

19. “Testimony of Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State-designate for the Bureau of Verification and Compliance,” March 26, 2009, http://foreign.senate.gov/testimony/2009/GottemoellerTestimony090326p.pdf.

20. Rose Gottemoeller, “Russian-American Security Relations After Georgia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 2008, p. 7, www.carnegieendowment.org/files/russia_us_security_relations_after_georgia.pdf.