Key CFE Obstacles are Not “Subregional”

Peter Perenyi

Wolfgang Zellner’s thoughtful article (“Can This Treaty Be Saved? Breaking the Stalemate on Conventional Forces in Europe,” September 2009) reminds us of the contribution to European security that could result from resolving the impasse over the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. However, the article’s analysis of contentious issues in discussions of the treaty is mistaken in distinguishing between “Euro-strategic” issues, including NATO enlargement and its effect on the European conventional force balance, and two ostensibly “subregional” issues. The distinction has important implications for policy decisions on how to approach the impasse and craft solutions to it.

One of the issues that Zellner classifies as subregional is Russia’s continued occupation of Georgia and Moldova, which contravenes Moscow’s 1999 Istanbul summit commitments. NATO countries that are parties to the CFE Treaty insist that Russia must fulfill these commitments before they ratify the 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty, which updates the CFE Treaty, notably by eliminating its bloc-to-bloc structure. The second issue is the Adapted CFE Treaty’s “flank” provisions limiting ground forces equipment in Russia’s Leningrad and North Caucasus military districts, limits which Russia rejects and NATO wishes to preserve.

Zellner’s article overlooks the negotiating history and broader significance of these issues, which extend beyond the regions immediately involved to the overall strategic relationship between NATO and Russia. Perhaps the most troublesome issue in that relationship is the rules governing NATO and Russian behavior in the entire former Soviet domain, which Russia refers to as its “near abroad.” The parts of that area where current or prospective NATO forces are closest to Russia are naturally the most sensitive. These are areas involved in the flank issue and the dispute over Georgia.

Zellner would resolve the Georgia issue by somehow updating the Istanbul commitments to reflect the reality that Russian forces will not be withdrawn soon. By defining the Georgia problem as less than Euro-strategic and ignoring the real basis for linking the Istanbul commitments to the treaty regime, his article seems to imply a resolution doing little to redress the situation. Regardless of “who started it,” the result of the Georgian-Russian conflict of August 2008 has been two Russian brigades in Georgia’s breakaway regions—a substantial Russian force south of the Caucasus Mountains, readily reinforced from Russia and within easy reach of pipelines relieving Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. In this context, the lack of verifiable limits on forces in parts of Georgia amounts to a strategically significant gap in the treaty regime.

Ironically, by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, Russia has ensured their dependence on Moscow and Russia’s hold over a former Soviet space. In the light of Vladimir Putin’s 2005 remark that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical disaster of the century,” this consolidation of Moscow’s control, whether one motivation for Russian actions or merely a result, may serve as a precedent for Russia’s restoration of its influence by encouraging separatism on its periphery. Ukraine is vulnerable to similar tactics. Ignoring the implications of this precedent by failing to insist on militarily significant steps to begin to restore confidence would not enhance European security.

These considerations argue, at a minimum, for substantial verifiable reductions of Russian and other forces in separatist areas of Georgia. Such reductions, depending on their scope, could perhaps overcome a key barrier to Adapted CFE Treaty ratification or could constitute a significant confidence-building step that could be matched by, for example, providing some further clarification on future NATO force levels.

Complete or near-complete Russian withdrawal is unlikely if it appears that NATO would then offer Georgia a membership action plan, a step Russia’s intervention has complicated and delayed, perhaps indefinitely. NATO will not withdraw its stated commitment to Georgia’s membership, and even if it or Georgia were to do so, there is no guarantee that Russia would loosen its military grip on Georgia. Neither, unfortunately, will Moscow withdraw its recognition of the separatist governments. Russia has so far blocked a status-neutral solution to placing observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on separatist territories. But certainly, there are status-neutral ways to approach verifiable CFE Treaty reductions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If it wished to pursue them, Russia could preserve its position by claiming consent from secessionist “governments.”

Zellner says the need for Georgia’s consent to the presence of foreign forces is a “political consideration.” He never specifies how the principle of host-nation consent relates to the CFE Treaty. It is integral to both the current and Adapted CFE treaties; it is strengthened in the latter by requiring explicit host-nation notification of consent, and it is the underlying basis for linking the Istanbul commitments to ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty.

That linkage is neither artificial nor an afterthought. The Adapted CFE Treaty would never have been signed if Russia had not first signed the bilateral agreements involving withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova. NATO made a public issue of the linkage between Adapted CFE Treaty ratification and the Istanbul commitments only in 2002, three years after the signing of the treaty, because Russian foot-dragging in implementing its commitments took time to reach a crisis.

Zellner points out that the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist area of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia, has not blocked NATO states’ ratification. However, Russia’s occupation of Georgia and Moldova involves a violation by a major treaty partner and has larger implications for European security.

The problem in Moldova should be somewhat easier to resolve than the one in Georgia. The Russian force in Moldova is small, isolated by Ukraine and Moldova from Russia’s borders, and thus of less strategic concern, although equally important from a treaty perspective. Moreover, Moldova is not an active candidate for NATO membership, and Russia has not recognized the independence of Transdniestria, a secessionist region of Moldova.

The second issue that Zellner mislabels as subregional is the flank issue. The Adapted CFE Treaty’s flank provisions, by limiting reinforcements of ground forces equipment, stabilize large areas of northern and southern Europe where NATO and Russian forces are closest to each other. It would be wrong to suggest that this has no broader impact on European stability. The flank provisions cover not only the Russian Leningrad and North Caucasus military districts, but also nearby Norway and Turkey and, in the near abroad, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia. When Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania accede to the Adapted CFE Treaty, Russia will doubtless insist that all three be subject to flank restrictions. Renegotiating the Adapted CFE Treaty to drop coverage of the Russian flank would mean that, within its overall limits, Russia could theoretically bring any size force into its flank areas, while nearby NATO flank states could receive only limited reinforcements.

Zellner faults what he sees as a failure to address Russia’s demand to drop the Russian flank limits. Yet, Russia has repeatedly agreed to resolutions of the flank issue only to reopen it. The limits on Russia’s flank zone were eased in the 1997 Flank Agreement and again in the Adapted CFE Treaty. Last March, NATO offered to consider adjusting the treaty’s equipment limits—which include Russian flank limits—once the Adapted CFE Treaty enters into force.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, has publicly criticized the treaty flank restrictions as imposing unacceptable movement restrictions on Russia. Interestingly, however, Russia has made politically binding commitments outside the treaty to restrictions on two parts of its territory, the Kaliningrad enclave, bordering Poland and Lithuania, and the Pskov Oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia and was excluded from the northern part of the flank zone by the Flank Agreement. At the Istanbul summit, Russia pledged to refrain from permanent stationing of “substantial additional combat forces” in those areas. This echoed earlier NATO pledges to refrain from “new stationing,” i.e., the stationing of “substantial” combat forces on the territory of new NATO members. Russia has since demanded that NATO define what it means by “substantial” combat forces. NATO has publicly offered to do so in the context of Russian agreement to a NATO compromise proposal calling for parallel steps toward Russian fulfillment of its Istanbul commitments and NATO states’ ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty.

It seems reasonable that Russia should reciprocate such a far-reaching NATO commitment on stationing. If a definition of “substantial” were mutually agreed and a similar commitment applied reciprocally to other areas of Russia, including the Leningrad and North Caucasus military districts, this might be a useful interim confidence-building step that could spur progress. In the end, however, some legally binding and evenhanded means of stabilizing the flank regions by limiting force buildups must be found. It would be a mistake to conclude that the choice for the CFE Treaty regime is either permanent impasse or unwise concessions. A comprehensive solution will contribute to, and might require some parallel progress in, resolving larger underlying conflicts involving NATO enlargement and Russia’s desire for dominance in its near abroad. But, at a minimum, early  steps to build confidence in the CFE Treaty regime should be possible and could hasten progress.

Peter Perenyi is a senior analyst at ANSER, a not-for-profit research institute. Until July, he represented the Office of the Secretary of Defense on U.S. delegations dealing with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. The views expressed in this letter are his own and are not intended to reflect those of the U.S. government or any of its agencies.