“Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.”

– George Stephanopolous
ABC News
January 1, 2005
CFE Treaty Talks Stall
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Tom Z. Collina

After a year-long, high-level effort by the Obama administration to revive the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the process appears to have ground to a halt in May and remained stuck since then.

After some initial progress, the U.S. and Russian negotiating positions remain far apart with little prospect for near-term success, knowledgeable sources said. A senior Obama administration official told Arms Control Today in an Aug. 24 interview that negotiators are taking a “serious pause” to rethink “what we need for conventional arms control in Europe.”

Experts are concerned that if the CFE Treaty ultimately collapses, Russia will increase its reliance on tactical nuclear weapons to defend itself from what Moscow now sees as NATO’s conventional superiority in Europe. This could become a roadblock to President Barack Obama’s plans to seek a follow-on to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia that would place limits on tactical nuclear weapons, as well as strategic weapons and nuclear warheads in storage.

In a sign of the current stalemate, Victoria Nuland, the administration’s special envoy on CFE issues, left her post in June to become Department of State spokesperson and has not been replaced. The State Department appears to have little hope for constructive proposals from Russia and to be in a wait-and-see mode. In a July 1 statement at CFE talks in Vienna, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller said that “the United States and our Allies stand ready to return to the negotiating table whenever we have a signal that real progress can be made on the remaining issues.” Mikhail Ulyanov, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Security and Disarmament Department, was more blunt, saying at the same event that CFE Treaty consultations are at “an impasse” and that unless the situation changes, “we may passively watch the European arms control system die.”

The central unresolved issues, according to U.S. officials, are that Russia has not been meeting its obligation under the CFE Treaty to share data on its military deployments and has stationed forces in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova without their consent. These issues date back to 1999, when the CFE Treaty was modified; to 2007, when Russia suspended its compliance with the treaty; and to 2008, when Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states following the Georgian-Russian conflict. Meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in April 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that, to make progress on CFE issues, “Russia must be willing to talk to its neighbors about its equipment and forces in disputed territories” and “must be completely transparent about its military forces.”

Russia has met neither U.S. demand. Moscow’s position is that the CFE Treaty has been overtaken by events and must be replaced by the 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty, which Russia has ratified. NATO agrees, but its members have refused to ratify the modified treaty until Moscow meets its political commitments from 1999 to withdraw its forces from Moldova and close its military bases in Georgia. NATO says these deployments violated the 1999 ­political deal, which Moscow denies.

The Obama administration had been hoping that it could repair the CFE regime as part of a broader effort to improve U.S.-Russian relations, an effort that included the successful negotiation of New START. Since April 2010, the United States has led renewed efforts among the 30 CFE member states and six non-CFE NATO allies to “try to break the impasse that has prevented full implementation of the Treaty,” Gottemoeller said in her July 1 remarks. These states started a diplomatic effort to craft a “framework” statement of key provisions and principles that would guide new negotiations to strengthen the CFE regime.

According to current and former officials, NATO and Russian leaders met in Vienna numerous times between June 2010 and May 2011. NATO overcame Moscow’s initial opposition to any preconditions for talks on a new treaty, but Russia ultimately could not agree to the principle of host-country consent or to a resumption of compliance with the old CFE Treaty while talks continued, the officials said. They said that agreement on these two points would have required new instructions from senior Russian leaders, but that CFE issues did not appear to be high enough on the list of Russian priorities.

The CFE Treaty, signed at the end of the Cold War on Nov. 19, 1990, eliminated the Soviet Union’s overwhelming quantitative advantage in conventional weapons in Europe by setting equal limits on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters that NATO and the Warsaw Pact could deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.

The treaty was designed to prevent either alliance from amassing forces for a blitzkrieg-type offensive, which could have triggered the use of nuclear weapons in response. Although the threat of such an offensive all but disappeared with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, member states have spoken of the enduring value of the unprecedented degree of transparency on military holdings under the CFE Treaty regime.

Gottemoeller said in July that, without a new Russian position on the key issues, real progress could not be made and “we must ask, ‘What is next for CFE?’” The senior administration official said that preparations are now being made for the CFE review conference in late September but that no breakthroughs are expected.