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Allies Ponder the Future of the CFE Treaty
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September 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández

NATO allies are increasingly questioning the value of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty as Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine and destabilize regional security. Some allies already consider the treaty defunct, a senior European official told Arms Control Today.

A Ukrainian soldier prepares 155mm artillery shells as the Ukrainian Army conducts an operation targeting the trenches of Russian forces in August in the Donetsk Oblast during the Russian war on Ukraine. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)Known as the cornerstone of European security, the treaty, together with the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty, constituted a web of interlocking and mutually reinforcing arms control obligations and commitments administered by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The treaty established verifiable 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.

Through unprecedented verification and confidence-building measures such as on-site inspections, the treaty contributed to the destruction of more than 72,000 pieces of treaty-limited military equipment. Losing the treaty would mean losing verifiable insight into the armed forces of countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova, although NATO members would not be subject to the ceilings
or verification regime.

In an interview July 13, the European official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the treaty no longer corresponded with the realities of the geopolitical environment. The official referred to treaty states-parties that are NATO members and part of a discreet group within the treaty and thus are subject to group sublimits that restrict their equipment amid the remilitarization of Europe.

Alexander Graef of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg told Arms Control Today that “some [c]urrent NATO members like Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland are, for the purpose of the treaty, still considered part of the Warsaw Pact group, but signed the CFE [Treaty] as sovereign states.  The overall [treaty] ceilings are still way beyond the currently available numbers of equipment, despite the changing security situation in the region.”

“Only Poland might become a partial exception in the future, depending on the actual scale of its announced weapon acquisitions,” he said.

Polish Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyńsk reiterated on Aug. 18 that Poland’s goal is a 300,000-member army, including 250,000 active-duty soldiers and 50,000 Territorial Defense Forces personnel. Valery Revenka, who heads the Belarusian defense ministry’s international military cooperation department, noted in an Aug. 23 tweet that the CFE agreement on personnel strength restricts the Polish Army to 234,000 people. He complained that NATO and European leaders who normally advocate compliance with international obligations have been silent on Poland’s plans. Poland announced on March 21 that it would cease to implement certain CFE Treaty articles with regard to Belarus. (See ACT, June 2023.)

Belarusian-Polish border tensions increased after Russia banished the Wagner paramilitary group to Belarus following the group’s one-day mutiny against the Russian Defense Ministry. Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in a suspicious plane crash in Russia on Aug. 23.

Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty does not take effect until Nov. 7, but it has failed to implement the agreement since 2007. Formal withdrawal will allow Russia to build up its forces and deploy them closer to its western border although Moscow may remain under treaty limits due to its equipment losses in Ukraine.

Russian ally Belarus shares the status of co-belligerent against Ukraine but remains in the treaty. Treaty states-parties “will have to decide whether to put the 1990 accord to rest, into a coma, or attempt to inject new life into it,” wrote Pal Dunay, former legal adviser of the Hungarian delegation to the 1989-1990 treaty negotiations.

In 1999, states-parties tried to adapt the treaty to reflect the enlargement of NATO because the original treaty had no provision for additional countries to accede to it, but they failed. (See ACT, November 1999.) After Russia ceased abiding by the treaty, the United States and several NATO allies stopped implementing it and imposed countermeasures on Moscow. But they continued implementing the treaty toward all other parties including Belarus, which came to represent Russian interests.

Every year, the State Department reports on CFE Treaty compliance among states-parties. Although a senior State Department official confirmed to Arms Control Today that the United States is in compliance with its treaty obligations, including toward Belarus, the report has not been released publicly. (See ACT, June 2023.) “Due to the unprecedented nature of Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine and its impact on U.S. and allied security, the…report covering the calendar year 2022 is still under review,” the official said.

According to their declarations to the OSCE, Denmark, Hungary, and the Netherlands have continued complying with the CFE Treaty and the Vienna Document. Romania, in its OSCE filing, noted that Romanian teams are actively involved in verification missions in the OSCE region under the treaty and the Vienna Document. Bulgaria reported that it did not conduct inspections under the treaty and did not receive any inspections but participated in Vienna Document activities.

During the summer of 2023, Arms Control Today spoke on background with more than a dozen European officials. All highlighted their support for the OSCE as an organization and for reimagining the OSCE arms control instruments following the emergence of an expected new European security order. Some noted that the OSCE is the only platform where some states could talk to Russia or to other states with whom they may not otherwise have contact.

Even though the CFE Treaty is battered, “[w]e still have the Vienna Document,” OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid said July 26 in Washington.

“At some point after trust is built, you will have to come back to conventional arms control and do it in an inclusive manner; and everyone relevant to European security is around the table” at the OSCE, she said.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine dealt a serious blow to the OSCE and its arms control instruments. Since the war began, Russia has opted not to participate in the Vienna Document annual data exchange about its forces and its inspection and verification regime.