The Vienna Document

Media Contact: Gabriela Rosa Hernández, Research Associate, 202-463-8270 x104 ([email protected])

Updated: February 2023

The Vienna Document is a confidence-building mechanism in which participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agree to inspections and data exchanges to increase the transparency of their conventional forces. With Russia’s suspension of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE Treaty) in 2007 and the subsequent loss of transparency around conventional forces, the politically binding procedures and related reports associated with the document have become more important. Throughout the years, OSCE participating states have amended the Vienna Document. However, these amendments were not meant to replace the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, but to mitigate the risks of military activities and enhance transparency between states.

Since 2020, numerous states do not host physical inspections allegedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this and Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, the electronic data exchanges between OSCE participating states continued. For more coverage of the status of the Vienna Document, see ACT March 2023.

Background: The Vienna Document encompasses the goals of the Helsinki Final Act Decalogue of 1975 and incorporates them into a politically binding document. The Helsinki Final Act principles created the initial confidence- and security-building measures that would be elaborated upon, first in the Stockholm Document (1986) and later in the first Vienna Document. The first document, Vienna Document 1990, would have successors in Vienna Documents 1992, 1994, and 1999. All the Vienna Documents have sought to strengthen the transparency and openness in the OSCE area. 

The main negotiation and assessment forums on confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) are the Annual Implementation Assessment Meeting and the Forum for Security Co-operation. Discussions in these forums have produced an array of proposals, yet these discussions are very complex and difficult because the 57 participating OSCE states have different military structures, viewpoints, interests, and alliances.  As of 2011, 57 OSCE participating states have adopted the Vienna Document on confidence and security building measures. 

Throughout the years, both Russia and NATO members have pointed out that the Vienna Document needs to be modernized because of new technology, capabilities, and changes in the security environment. Unfortunately, neither NATO members nor Russia have held this position at the same time. 

Prior to 2014, Russia proposed to modernize the Vienna Document multiple times, yet the US and its allies showed no interest mainly due to Russia's suspension of its CFE commitments in 2007. In the later part of the 2010s, NATO members signaled an openness to modernize the Vienna Document. In response, Russian officials have rejected a modernization of the Vienna Document, withdrew Russia’s proposals, and asserted that before there is a modernization, NATO members must cease their containment policy towards Russia.

A noteworthy fact about the Vienna Document is that it mainly only covers ground forces even if they are in combination with naval or air components. Forces engaging in amphibious landings, heliborne landings or parachute assaults in the zone of application are also covered by notification and observation. For the document, amphibious landing includes total troops launched from the sea by naval and landing forces embarked in ships or craft involving a landing on shore. However, maritime forces or air forces, unless they engage in the conditions stipulated above, are not subject to the Vienna Document.

In 1999, the Vienna Document included a chapter on regional measures because of concern over a possible sub-regional conflict erupting in the OSCE region. In response, numerous OSCE participating states hoped to avert and de-escalate subregional conflict through tailored CSBMs and negotiated bilateral arms control measures. Some of these include lowering the notification and observation thresholds stipulated in the Vienna Document between sets of parties.

Information Exchange: Under the Vienna Document, countries agree to an Annual Exchange of Military Information where information regarding “military forces concerning the military organization, manpower, and major weapon and equipment systems” will be shared with other member states.  A country that plans to change the structure of its military forces for a period longer than 21 days (such as increasing the size of a combat unit) reports the change to other states. States also share information about their weapon systems and if there are plans to deploy new systems (if so, countries share information about these systems). Under Article II, countries are also expected to provide information regarding their defense planning.  Under a general considerations report, a state provides information regarding its military structure (including specific unit and formation information), major weapons and equipment systems, and their hardware. The specific equipment that is covered by the Vienna Document can be found in Article I.

The Vienna Document also says that states should inform other states if “certain military activities” will take place, which means a military activity will be subject to notification whenever it involves at any time during the activity:

  • at least 9,000 troops, including support troops, or

  • at least 250 battle tanks, or

  • at least 500 armored combat vehicles, as defined in Annex III, paragraph (2), or

  • at least 250 self-propelled and towed artillery pieces, mortars, and multiple rocket launchers (100 mm calibre and above).  

The Vienna Document also stipulates that states must invite other participating states to observe military activities if the number of troops engaged equals or exceeds 13,000 or “where the number of battle tanks engaged equals or exceeds 300, or where the number of armored combat vehicles engaged as defined in Annex III, paragraph (2), equals or exceeds 500, or where the number of self-propelled and towed artillery pieces, mortars and multiple rocket launchers (100 mm caliber and above) engaged equals or exceeds 250. In the case of an amphibious landing, heliborne landing, or parachute assault, the activity will be subject to observation whenever the number of troops engaged equals or exceeds 3,500.”

If an OSCE participating state has concerns about a militarily significant action, they can request an explanation of the action from the party responsible. If there are concerns after an explanation is offered, the concerned state can request a meeting with the acting party.  Participation in the meeting will be open to any states interested in the action. Either party can also request a meeting of all states, which would be conducted as a joint Permanent Council and Forum for Security Cooperation meeting, where recommendations from states will be considered. For instance, numerous states attempted to use this mechanism during Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s borders in April 2021 and again in December 2021 prior to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

Process: The Vienna Document 1999 encourages countries to host visits to military facilities, create military contacts, and hold joint exercises and demonstrations of military equipment as ways of increasing confidence between states. By November 15 of each year, states are expected to submit a schedule of prior notification of military activities for the next year.  

Under the Document, states can host three inspections on their territory per year and do not have to exceed that limit if they do not wish.  Inspection teams observe notable military activities.  In addition to inspection visits, there are also evaluation visits, which verify data that is part of the information exchange.  A state must host at least one and no more than 15 evaluation visits a year (the number of visits is determined by the number of units).  

Article XI calls for an Annual Implementation Assessment Meeting where states will have the opportunity to discuss questions of implementation, operations, and questions that may have arisen from information that has been exchanged.  The meeting, hosted by the Forum for Security Cooperation, is also an opportunity to discuss confidence- and security-building measures.  If a state has not offered its data at the Annual Exchange of Military Information, held no later than December 15, they are expected to offer an explanation as to why it has not been submitted and an expected date for contribution.

 Amendments to the Vienna Document since 1999: 

  • A May 19,  decision by the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC.DEC/1/10) created a procedure for continuous updating of the Vienna Document, under which decisions that update document text will be called Vienna Document Plus. Every five years the Vienna Document will be reissued with the changes from “Plus” incorporated.  This will not delay the entry into force of changes, which will be effective immediately unless expressly stated otherwise.  Decisions in Vienna Document Plus will supersede those of Vienna Document 1999 as they are the most recent.

  • The current version of the Vienna Document was revised in 2011 (VD 11) and further amended in 2012 by an FSC decision “which encouraged voluntary notifications by participating States of most significant military exercises below the established thresholds.” 

[1] For a more detailed description of the Decalogue, see European Navigator’s explanation

[2] The participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, the Holy See, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, San Marino, Serbia, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Uzbekistan

[3] Anthony, Ian. Reducing Military Risk in Europe. SIPRI Policy Paper, No. 51. Solna: sipri, Stockholm International Research Institute, 2019.

[4] Lachowski, Zdzisław. Confidence- and Security-Building Measures in the New Europe. SIPRI Research Report, no. 18. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[5] Richter, Wolfgang. A Framework for Arms Control Current Status of and Requirements for Conventional Arms Control in Europe, 2021. 

[6] Rosa-Hernandez Gabriela & Oliker, Olga. The Art of the Possible: Minimizing Risks as a New European Order Takes Shape, 2022.