Russia Refuses Annual Vienna Document Data Exchange

March 2023
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández

Russia has reneged on another international commitment by refusing to share data on its military forces with 57 participating states as called for in the Vienna Document, according to a letter obtained by Arms Control Today and a European official.

Foreign ministers representing the 57 participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe discussed regional security challenges created by Russia’s war against Ukraine during its annual meeting in Lodz, Poland, in December. (Photo by Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The failure to participate in the annual data exchange occurs as Russia is waging an illegal war against Ukraine, suspending its participation in the last treaty limiting Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons and taking other steps to undermine the post-Cold War European security architecture.

Overseen by the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Vienna Document is a confidence and security-building mechanism that has allowed the 57 participating states to observe and notify each other about their military exercises and other relevant events to prevent misinterpretation of these activities. It is one the few remaining mechanisms for political and military cooperation in Europe.

Moscow’s decision was first communicated on Jan. 16, 2022, in a letter signed by Konstantin Gavrilov, head of the Russian arms control delegation in Vienna, to Siniša Bencun, the ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the OSCE who at the time also chaired the organization’s Forum for Security and Cooperation.

Gavrilov said that Russia would not provide national information about its armed forces for 2023 as stipulated by Chapter I of the Vienna Document, essentially suspending its participation in the annual exchange that is supposed to be provided each year by Dec. 15.

Russia still has not provided the required data even though the new reporting year has begun, an official from an OSCE participating state told Arms Control Today on condition of anonymity.

In his letter, Gavrilov wrote that the Russian decision “was taken in response to the Czech Republic’s step to suspend the implementation of its commitments under [the Vienna Document] towards Russia and due to Ukraine’s interpretative statement about its refusal to participate in the 2023 [annual information exchange], as well as to send certain routine notifications provided by the Vienna Document.”

“We proceed from the assumption that if the Russian Federation exchanges its national [data] report, it will for sure end up in the hands of the above-mentioned participating states,” he added.

The letter also accused 29 of the participating states, including Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, of not providing certain notifications on time and alleged that the Netherlands excluded Russia from the list of notification recipients. In addition, Russia accused Bulgaria, France, and Poland of not inviting Russian representatives to their military bases.

As of February, 50 participating states provided the required information for 2023, the official from the OSCE participating state said, while Armenia, Mongolia, Poland, and Ukraine, provided information “on delay,” meaning they were late. The remaining two countries, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, have not submitted information for years.

When asked about Russia’s accusations, U.S. State Department spokesperson, Ned Price said in an email on Feb. 28 that, “the United States continues to fully adhere to all of its commitments under the Vienna Document 2011 on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures, including the provision of required notifications and other information to all Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe participating states, among them Russia.”

Price did not specifically address the issue of Russian compliance.

According to Western officials, Russian adherence to the document has long been eroding. As Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu said in August, “the Vienna Document 2011 remains formally in force, but there are no prospects for its practical implementation.”

“In the absence of trust between the parties, the verification mechanism actually becomes a source of intelligence information, which does not meet the spirit of the agreement," he said at the Moscow Conference on International Security.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine requested under Chapter III of the document that the OSCE send unarmed military and civilian personnel to its territory, starting in Odesa, to dispel concerns about military activity. OSCE military assessment personnel were denied entry to Crimea.

In 2021, Ukraine called for a meeting under Chapter III and requested that Russia clarify its military activities as Russian forces were building up near the Ukrainian border. Russia refused to respond to the inquiry and insisted that it had no obligation to do so but accepted a Swiss inspection in the territories of Voronezh and Belgorod.

In early 2022, before launching its full-scale war on Ukraine, Russia announced that it would no longer host visits to verify the data part of the information exchange or inspections of specified areas to observe military activities. It cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason.

Many recent Western proposals for modernizing the Vienna Document have focused on confidence- and security-building measures as a crisis response tool. Because of the deterioration of the European security architecture, efforts after 2014 were also geared toward the prevention of military incidents between NATO allies and Russia. The latest initiative came just before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine when Western nations offered arms control ideas to build a common security in Europe.

The West has long been concerned about Russian adherence to the Vienna Document. But Moscow’s decision to further cloak its military activities and conventional forces makes the situation worse by signaling a return to full scale strategic ambiguity as its forces and equipment are spent in Ukraine.

Russia has also increased its defense budget and mobilized its defense industry to support its war in Ukraine. On Dec. 21, Russia announced that it planned to carry out in 2023 its large-scale Zapad exercise, which typically takes place every four years and focuses on the Russian Western Military District and Belarus.