US Joins Russia in Suspending Adherence to Conventional Weapons Treaty

Russian Tanks and APCs on Display in Moscow (Credit:
Dr. Richard Weitz (Credit: The Hudson Institute)

By Dr. Richard Weitz

12/02/2011 – The United States announced recently that it would stop sharing data with Russia under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. In announcing the decision, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland noted that Russia had suspended its participation in 2007. Nuland said the United States still hoped to persuade Russia to come back to the treaty but Washington was no longer willing to share information without Moscow reciprocating.

The successful negotiation of the CFE Treaty marked a major milestone in the East-West conflict that had divided the European continent since World War II. By requiring major reductions in European armaments and establishing a system of confidence-building measures that reduced fears of surprise conventional attacks throughout the continent, the CFE Treaty helped consolidate the end of the Cold War and establish an environment conducive to further security cooperation between Russia and the West. Conversely, the Russian government decision to “suspend” its adherence to the Treaty in 2007 symbolized the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West as well as of Moscow’s renewed foreign policy assertiveness.

Russian Tanks and APCs on Display in Moscow  (Credit: Tanks and APCs on Display in Moscow  (Credit:

On November 19, 1990, the then 16 NATO members (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States) and the 6 members of the now disbanded Warsaw Pact (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union) signed the original CFE Treaty. It took NATO and the then-Warsaw Pact over a decade to negotiate the complex data exchanges and inspections associated with a binding and verifiable treaty that limited conventional weapons deployments throughout the enormous areas between the Atlantic Ocean and the Urals. This enormous region encompassed the territories of dozens of countries, with disparate force structures and security concerns. The breakup of the USSR resulted in each of the eight former Soviet republics having territory west of the Urals ratifying the accord in 1991. The division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia also led both of them to ratify the accord.

The CFE Treaty established equal ceilings of five categories of “heavy” conventional weapons for both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In the geographic zone extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, each group agreed to possess no more than 20,000 tanks, 30,000 armored combat vehicles, 620,000 artillery pieces, 800 combat aircraft, and 2,000 attack helicopters. The accord established lower levels for each of these categories of “active” units and also created several sub-regions where both blocs could deploy equal numbers of specified weapons systems. These zonal numerical limitations are also known as “flank limits.” The so-called “sufficiency rule” further limits the proportion of armaments that any one country can deploy in the treaty zone to approximately one-third of the aggregate total for all CFE parties. To enforce these complex limits, the Treaty instituted a sophisticated system of monitoring, inspections, and verifications.

The CFE Treaty established a detailed timeline requiring all 30 State Parties to destroy, transfer, or convert to peaceful use all holdings in excess of permitted levels within three years after the treaty entered into force, which occurred on November 9, 1992. A Joint Consultative Group, composed of all the CFE members, provides a forum in Vienna to address technical and other issues relating to treaty implementation as well as consider ways to enhance the treaty’s effectiveness. According to NATO, over 60,000 pieces of treaty-limited equipment has been destroyed in accordance with the Treaty’s provisions. The reductions, combined with the extensive system of military confidence-building measures, helped eliminate the possibility of large-scale surprise attacks in Europe.

Yet, the Warsaw Pact’s subsequent dissolution and NATO’s ensuing expansion soon disrupted these carefully crafted force balances, based on a bloc-to-bloc structure that no longer existed. To address the changing European security environment, on November 19, 1999, 30 countries (8 new parties had acceded to the original treaty by then) met at a heads of state summit in Istanbul, held under the auspices of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). There they adopted two important agreements. First, NATO governments agreed to modify the CFE Treaty to account for the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, de-linking the force levels of Russia from the other former members of the Soviet bloc, some of which were joining NATO. The amended version replaced the obsolete bloc ceilings and zones with a system of national limits for each treaty party. Although it retains the systems of flank zones, which were of particular importance for Turkey and Norway, the Adapted Treaty applied them to smaller areas.

In addition to signing the legally binding ACFE, the summit participants agreed to a set of political commitments connected to the treaty to deal with the continuing existence of Russian equipment holdings in the “flank” (North Caucasus) regions in excess of agreed treaty limits, and the continuing Russian military presence in former Soviet bases in Georgia and Moldova. NATO governments insisted on Russia’s withdrawing its military forces from Georgia’s autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as Moldova’s Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniester since they did not comply with the principle that foreign troops can only remain in a host country with the consent of its internationally recognized government. In several Annexes to the 1999 CFE Final Act adopted at the OSCE Istanbul summit (known as the “Istanbul Commitments”), Russian President Boris Yeltsin indicated Moscow would reduce its forces in the flanks to the agreed levels of the CFE Treaty, withdraw its forces from the former Soviet military bases in Moldova, and agree with the Georgian authorities on an appropriate military presence (if any) in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Unfortunately, Russia implemented only some of these Istanbul Commitments, but has retained a military presence in the separatist regions of Moldova and Georgia, citing security and other considerations. As a result, only four of the signatories—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia—subsequently fully ratified the 1999 Adaptation Agreement. The other parties have refused to do so until the Russian government fulfills the commitments it made at the Istanbul summit to withdraw all its military bases from the other former Soviet republics. The new European countries that emerged in Europe after December 1990—including the three Baltic states adjoining Russia—cannot join the CFE Treaty until it is ratified by all current members.

The relationship between these two summit decisions remains a key point of contention between Russia and the West regarding the CFE Treaty. Western governments consider these two steps interdependent, Russian officials rejected NATO’s insistence that a formal link exists between the implementation of the legally binding Adapted CFE Treaty and the political commitments made by a Yeltsin government that is no longer in office and during a different European security environment.

On December 12, 2007, the Russian government “suspended” its participation in the CFE Treaty due to “exceptional circumstances” that jeopardized Russia’s “national interests in the sphere of military security.”  The text posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website blamed NATO countries for refusing to ratify the Adopted CFE Treaty until Moscow fulfilled “farfetched requirements having nothing to do with the CFE Treaty.” It also accused them of taking “a number of steps incompatible with the letter and spirit of the Treaty and undermining the balances that lie at its core.” This charge refers to NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and the deployment of NATO military forces from Western Europe and the United States on these new members’ territory.

The effect of the suspension, an option not even provided for in the original 1990 treaty, has been that Moscow has not provided information about the size, location, and activities of its military forces west of the Ural Mountains, the Russian territory covered by the treaty, for more than four years.

After the Russian CFE moratorium went into effect, NATO issued a statement calling the Russian decision “particularly disappointing” because Allied governments “have worked intensively with other Treaty partners over the past months to try to resolve the Russian Federation’s concerns constructively.” Yet, the alliance still insists that any compromise had to respect “the integrity of the Treaty regime with all its elements,” as well as to “fulfill remaining commitments reflected in the 1999 CFE Final Act with its Annexes, including those related to the Republic of Moldova and Georgia.” NATO governments said that, while they would not retaliate “in kind at this stage” to Russia’s suspension, they “will carefully monitor the Russian Federation’s compliance with its Treaty obligations” given that the “Allies’ proposals for parallel actions on outstanding issues are constructive, reasonable, and forward looking.”

The Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 has further complicated matters. During the war, the Russian military reinforced its forces in the CFE flank region and employed its troops there to occupy all of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia subsequently recognized these two regions as independent countries. Their self-declared governments, recognized only by Moscow and a few other foreign governments, invited the Russian military to establish large military bases on their territory. in the flank region. Russia ten established several new semi-permanent military bases in the heart of the CFE’s most sensitive sub-zone. In addition, the war impeded negotiations for months between Russia and the West on renewing or replacing the CFE regime.

For their part, Russian officials would like NATO to commit not to establish permanent military bases outside NATO territory, and accept lower force limitation quotas to compensate for the additional military capacity NATO has acquired through its membership enlargement, and consent to eliminate the system of flank limitations that apply to Russian territory in the North Caucasus as well as the Russian region opposite Norway. Since Medvedev became president in 2008, Russian proposals regarding the CFE Treaty have been closely tied to the his call for a new, comprehensive European Security Treaty to address the continent’s major security issues as an integrated passage. Russian officials have offered two pathways for renewing the CFE regime. First, NATO governments could simply ratify the ACFE and Russia would comply with it. After the Adapted Treaty came into force, the two could then modify it further. Alternatively, NATO and Russia could proceed directly to negotiate a new treaty, effectively setting aside the 1999 ACFE draft.

The Obama administration, which assumed office in January 2009, has worked with NATO and other governments to craft a new CFE renewal proposal that might be acceptable to Moscow. During 2010, some diplomatic activity on the CFE Treaty became visible. In January, the United States appointed a special envoy for the CFE treaty and the joint statement released after the June 2010 Obama-Medvedev summit had a reference to CFE: “The United States of America and the Russian Federation are also committed to working with all our partners this year to strengthen the conventional arms control regime in Europe, and modernize it for the 21st century.” But these initiatives have since stagnated.

It is possible that the recent U.S. suspension could help relaunch the CFE negotiations, but any process to modernize the CFE regime will have several tough issues to work through including the sub-zone numerical limitations (so-called flank limits) and the issue of host-nation consent of foreign troops on the territory of a party to the CFE, an issue particularly acute in Moldova and especially Georgia.

Unlike the strategic arms negotiations, which are negotiated only between Russia and the United States (though with considerable give-and-take among the relevant executive branch agencies as well as between the administrations and their legislatures, which must ratify any treaty), the CFE talks involve dozens of independent countries that must all consent to change the existing CFE Treaty or bring a new one into force.. Given that there are 30 state parties to the CFE Treaty and six more states that will have to enter the adapted or new treaty regime (the newer NATO members from the Baltic region and the western Balkans), the parties will require much time to negotiate a revised treaty that will then secure the agreement and ratification of all the state parties.

Above all, it would be surprising if the parties did not try to link other issues to the treaty discussions. The Russian Ambassador to NATO, for instance, has argued that a revised CFE Treaty should extend to encompass navies because “naval forces in many NATO countries have considerable advantages over Russia’s navy.”