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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Whither the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty?

Arms Control NOW

By Daryl G. Kimball

Today, the Obama administration announced it "would cease carrying out certain obligations under the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty with regard to Russia."

The announcement is a symptom of the long-running disputes that have emerged over CFE implementation over the years and the inability of key parties to reach common ground, despite the Obama administration's recent diplomatic overtures on the issue.

The CFE Treaty led to the elimination of thousands of Soviet-era weapons.

Today's U.S. announcement is a response to Russia's 2007 announcement that it would suspend of implementation of certain provisions of CFE, which was itself a response to the failure of NATO states to ratify the Adapted CFE Treaty of 1999, which was a response to earlier disputes with Russia over its military deployments in Moldova and Georgia.

As State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland (who was the Obama administration's point person on CFE) explained it in a formal statement:

This announcement in the CFE Treaty's implementation group comes after the United States and NATO Allies have tried over the past 4 years to find a diplomatic solution following Russia's decision in 2007 to cease implementation with respect to all other 29 CFE States. Since then, Russia has refused to accept inspections and ceased to provide information to other CFE Treaty parties on its military forces as required by the Treaty.

The United States will continue to implement the Treaty and carry out all obligations with all States Parties other than Russia, including not exceeding the numerical limits on conventional armaments and equipment established by the Treaty. We will resume full Treaty implementation regarding Russia if Russia resumes implementation of its Treaty obligations.

One of the central disputes has been Russia's refusal to share data on its military deployments and has stationed forces in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova without their consent.

As ACA research director Tom Collina reported in Arms Control Today earlier this year, beginning in April 2010, the United States 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.

The United States and other Western CFE member states jointly developed a draft "framework" statement of key provisions and principles that would guide new negotiations to strengthen the CFE regime.

Current and former officials told Arms Control Today that NATO and Russian leaders met in Vienna numerous times between June 2010 and May 2011.

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."

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 told Arms Control Today.

The Value of CFE

Over the years, the CFE Treaty has provided an unprecedented level of transparency, predictability, and stability to European security and the U.S.-Russian relationship. CFE slashed NATO and Warsaw Pact armies and their equipment and effectively eliminated the possibility of a blitzkrieg-style land attack across the East-West frontier. CFE helped end the Cold War.

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.

The treaty has led to the destruction of more than 60,000 heavy conventional weapons and more than 4,000 on-site inspections. The resulting post-Cold War military balance has erased the old rationale for maintaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which was to counter the Soviet bloc's conventional military strength.

CFE has shown that confidence and security can be better achieved through cooperation and openness than by competition and secrecy.

While key CFE parties are currently below the main limits established by the agreement, the fact that both Russia and the United States have now suspended implementation of "certain obligations" of the treaty means that the future of the CFE regime in serious doubt.

The task now for the United States, Russia, and other key European states is to explore options for a new post-CFE security architecture that provides some of the same valuable benefits that CFE has provided, including information about conventional force deployments and movements and updated limits, or at least new guidelines, on those military deployments.