Russia Formally Withdraws From CFE Treaty

June 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández

Russia dealt another symbolic blow to European security by formally withdrawing from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on May 10 terminating his country’s participation in the treaty, and the state Duma followed up five days later by approving a law denouncing the landmark agreement.

More than 72,000 pieces of military equipment, such as this German Marder tank, were destroyed under the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty from which Russia formally has withdrawn. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)The move marks the end of an era for the conventional arms control architecture in Europe that was painstakingly built over decades. Russia attempted to explain its decision by accusing the United States and NATO of pursuing a military confrontation with Russia with disastrous consequences.

The Western allies rejected this assertion. “Russia’s actions contrast with allies’ efforts to sustain the CFE Treaty, and Russian arguments that attempt to justify withdrawal with reference to circumstances in Ukraine or Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO are not credible,” a senior U.S. State Department official told Arms Control Today.

“Russia’s actions change nothing on the ground. Since 2007, Russia has ‘suspended’ its implementation of the CFE Treaty without a valid legal basis and it was failing to fully live up to its obligations under the treaty even before that ‘suspension,’” the official said.

Signed in 1990 during the era of perestroika as the Cold War was ending, the treaty, together with the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty, constitute a web of interlocking and mutually reinforcing arms control obligations and commitments.

The CFE Treaty 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 in case deterrence failed and to establish a military balance in Europe at a lower level of armaments. Through unprecedented verification measures, the treaty resulted in the elimination of more than 72,000 pieces of military equipment.

Russia’s wars in Chechnya complicated NATO-Russia treaty cooperation because since 1994 Russia has deployed more heavy military equipment in the Caucasus than permitted by the landmark pact and the 1996 CFE Flank Document. (See ACT, May 1997). “The old treaty...has long ceased to correspond to reality,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Parlamentskaya Gazeta on May 15.

During the 1999 CFE Treaty summit in Istanbul, treaty members signed an agreement known as the Adapted Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty to update the CFE treaty’s structure to reflect the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the expansion of NATO because the original treaty had no provision for additional countries to accede to it.

At the summit, Russia pledged to withdraw its forces from Moldova and Georgia and to show restraint in its deployment near the Baltics. (See ACT, November 1999.) But only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine ratified the agreement, and Ukraine has yet to deposit its ratification instrument.

The United States and its allies did not ratify the adapted treaty, citing the deployment of Russian forces in Moldova and Georgia. Russia insisted that ratification should not be conditioned on its pledges to withdraw its military from Moldova and Georgia and voiced frustrations that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia were not subject to CFE Treaty limits because they were not parties to the original agreement. Russia also wanted constraints eliminated on how many forces it could deploy in its southern and northern flanks. (See ACT, January/February 2008).

Given that the adapted treaty’s entry into force was contingent on ratification by all CFE Treaty parties, the original treaty remained in effect. Because of the dispute, Russia suspended its implementation of the treaty in 2007, but left open the option of returning to compliance and continued to participate in the CFE Treaty Joint Consultative Group until 2015. (See ACT, April 2015; December 2007.)

But after the Duma acted on May 16, Ryabkov told Tass that “[t]hose who still hoped to get Russia back into the treaty need to abandon their illusions, as the CFE Treaty runs counter to our security interests amid the current developments. And the West will have to recognize this obvious fact.”

In a tweet on May 10, Alexander Graef of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg noted how Russia’s steadfast ally, Belarus, was still party to the treaty. “Russia has not participated in the CFE Treaty for 15+ years but for a supposedly dead treaty, the 29 other members still spend a lot of energy on its implementation, including Belarus. The [treaty’s] remaining value is not in the numbers but in the information exchange and on-site inspections.”

In 2011, Washington said that it “would cease carrying out certain obligations” under the treaty with regard to Russia, but continued to implement its obligations toward other parties. (See ACT, December 2011.)

Poland announced on March 21 that it would cease to implement certain articles of the agreement with regard to Belarus because the “aggression against Ukraine in 2022 was committed not only by Russia but also by Belarus.” Asked by Arms Control Today if Washington might take similar action, the senior State Department official said that, “We will be consulting on any next steps in response to Russia’s action.”

In December 2021, two months before Russia’s illegal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States and its allies exchanged arms control proposals with Russia. (See ACT, March 2022.) Russia demanded that NATO no longer deploy forces on the territories of members who joined the alliance after 1997 and that NATO refrain from further enlargement. In reply, the United States and its allies urged Russia to return to observing the CFE Treaty.