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September 2007

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On July 14, President Putin announced his decision to suspend Russian participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Concluded in the waning days of the Cold War, CFE has been both surprisingly successful in the tumultuous post-Cold War era and highly contentious in its implementation. The motives for Putin’s move are unclear and the consequences uncertain, especially in the context of his other recent moves toward a more assertive Russian foreign policy. This essay, by a participant in the Treaty’s negotiation (see her article on “The Prince” in the Foreign Service Life section), clarifies its complexities, analyzes its evolution as European geo-politics have changed, and assesses its continued relevance for today.—Ed .
CFE: Will It Remain a “Cornerstone of European Security?”

Minutes before the initialing of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), our satisfaction and relief at completing the arduous negotiations and meeting the seemingly impossible deadline set by our political leaders were replaced by a gnawing sense of unease. In a spare, high-ceilinged room of Vienna’s Hofburg winter palace, just off the more grandiose hall where CFE plenary sessions were held, the 22 members of NATO and the disintegrating Warsaw Pact were in the midst of their initial information exchange, providing detailed data on their tanks, artillery, armored combat vehicles, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters — CFE’s treaty-limited equipment (TLE). We were baffled by the brevity of the Soviet list. We wanted to believe they had mistakenly provided us with one data book too few, but Soviet delegates smugly assured us their data was complete. According to our rough calculations, they were tens of thousands of weapons short.

We and our NATO allies quickly caucused to puzzle over the unanticipated figures but decided to go ahead with the initialing; no one was willing to derail the long-planned signing by heads of state and government in Paris the next day, November 19, 1990

We were shortly to learn that the abbreviated data report, in part, was the result of a determined effort, over months, to move some 57,000 TLE out of the treaty zone to sites east of the Ural Mountains. We had been aware of some movement, but not of that magnitude. The Soviets had also sought to reduce the amount of equipment within the zone subject to treaty limits by “reassigning” TLE to naval and coastal defense units whose equipment was not, per se, covered by CFE.

It was an unsettling end to the negotiation on which the 23 delegations (the German Democratic Republic had disappeared with German unification six weeks earlier, leaving 22 to conclude the treaty) had worked so hard and so hopefully. It was also an ominous beginning for what was being touted as a new era of stability and cooperation in a Europe that had never known lasting peace.

Well, CFE overcame the challenge of the Soviet “data discrepancy” and not only survived, it thrived — so far, for 17 years. Over those years, some 70,000 weapon systems have been eliminated; tens of thousands of notifications of military activities have been made; and more than 5,000 intrusive on-site inspections have taken place. For an agreement forged in the waning days of the Cold War, CFE proved itself remarkably nimble in the era that followed, adapting to the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union and accommodating the markedly different security agendas of the states that emerged in their wake. It was a key factor in creating a sturdy security architecture in Europe and eventually a new security culture based on transparency, predictability, and successful cooperation.

Today, there are 30 CFE states, and all the territory originally covered still is, except for the former Baltic republics. Czechoslovakia has split into two and in the place of the USSR are eight CFE successor states. The iron curtain disappeared long ago, as did the tense East-West military standoff CFE was designed to defuse. There is still a dividing line, albeit a less tangible one, and it has shifted to the east, where new, assertive NATO states and wannabees press up against a Russia that is feeling surrounded and cheated.

Efforts have been made to ease Russian concerns by adjusting CFE to the radically altered European landscape, and a major treaty adaptation instigated by Russia was signed in 1999. Its ratification, however, has been stalled by NATO-Russian differences; and on July 14, 2007, after months of threats, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would suspend its participation in CFE. NATO called for an extraordinary conference, but Russia rejected that and raised the ante, demanding that the adapted treaty be “modernized” further.

It remains to be seen if CFE will survive this latest assault and what the implications for European security will be if it does not. In accordance with treaty provisions for withdrawal, Putin’s move provided 150 days notice — until December 12, 2007 — before Russia would cease complying with its CFE obligations.

In the Beginning….
Before CFE, there were the talks on Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR). They engaged representatives of NATO and the Warsaw Pact for 16 years, keeping conventional arms control on the East-West agenda but achieving little else. The pronounced suspicion and rivalry in the high-stakes military sphere made meaningful cooperation impossible.

CFE was the forum for a new, more hopeful time, benefiting from two decades of step-by-step East-West détente in political, economic and humanitarian arenas and a growing interest on both sides in reducing military tension along with the expense of maintaining huge conventional arsenals. The latter, in particular, motivated new Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. Set on reforming the moribund Soviet economy, he undertook a range of policy initiatives vis-a-vis the West, including new conventional arms control talks.

The CFE mandate was drawn up in 1987-89 and the negotiation was launched in March, 1989. It was concluded just 20 months later, in November, 1990 — an amazing accomplishment given its 23 participants and tens of thousands of covered weapons. It had been fast, but not easy, requiring repeated interventions by political leaders to break through logjams. Then, even before the ink was dry on the completed accord and negotiators turned to the task of ratification, the Soviet “data discrepancy” threatened to derail the entire effort. NATO suspended treaty ratification pending its resolution.

Months later we found out that a pitched power struggle had taken place within the Soviet Union, with CFE a major point of contention. The transports out of the CFE zone and the “reassignments” of equipment — opposed by the Foreign Ministry — had been last-ditch attempts by defense and military officials to soften the impact of the treaty they considered so disadvantageous.

It took lengthy negotiations, but on June 14, 1991, a U.S.-Soviet agreement was reached whereby the Soviets agreed to destroy at least 14,500 TLE moved east of the Urals, to freeze levels of “reassigned” TLE, and to reduce their overall entitlements by an equivalent amount.

The first post-signing CFE crisis had been resolved.

On July 1, the Warsaw Pact officially disbanded, and on July 9, President George H.W. Bush submitted the CFE Treaty to the Senate for its approval. We settled down in Washington to focus on ratification — scheduling briefings and hearings, responding to questions. Nine months to the day after treaty signing, though, news came of an attempted coup in the Soviet Union.

Led by KGB chief Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Yazov, and Prime Minister Pavlov, the coup attempt was prompted by concerns that Gorbachev’s reforms had gone too far, particularly his new union treaty that would give Soviet republics greater autonomy. The coup was thwarted and Gorbachev restored to power, but the Soviet Union would never recover.

Inevitably, questions were raised in the Senate about ratifying and implementing a treaty that regulated the armed forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, when the latter no longer existed and the Soviet Union was in disarray. After all, the West’s primary objective in pursuing conventional arms control had been to contain the Soviet Union. We argued that not only did the treaty provide for the establishment of individual national ceilings and commitments, but that in a time of profound European instability and uncertainty, the weapons reductions and above all, the predictability and the structure that CFE could afford were needed more than ever.

The Senate approved CFE on November 25. On December 25, The Soviet Union dissolved into 15 independent states, 8 of which were located within the CFE area of application. (The Baltic states did not participate, not wishing to be linked to the eastern group of CFE states nor to assume Soviet CFE obligations. Moreover, they feared that being part of the CFE regime could delay Russian force withdrawals). U.S. ratification came on December 26, 1991.

A Solid Record of Achievement
Those of us working so hard to convince Senators and their staffers that CFE was more valuable than ever also had our doubts about its longevity. In looking back now, over the 17 years since treaty signing, I can say we and all the other skeptics were dead wrong. In fact, CFE is probably the most successful arms control agreement in history, even living up to its much-cited rubric, “cornerstone of European security.”

Its mandate — to strengthen stability and security in Europe by achieving a stable balance of forces at lower levels and by eliminating the capability for surprise attack and large-scale offensive action — has been fulfilled. Treaty-limited holdings across Europe have shrunk from more than 200,000 to less than 109,000 — well below permitted levels. Unprecedented transparency and predictability have been achieved by regular data exchanges, notifications, and inspections. Frequent consultations, joint training and other exchanges have woven a dense net of formal and informal connections between and among participants at every level, enhancing confidence and trust.

CFE supplied rules and order as a new Europe evolved. Its obligations were precise, concrete and legally binding. Its implementing body, the Joint Consultative Group (JCG), met regularly to assess progress, discuss problems, and find solutions. CFE has been a cooperative venture whose successes are measurable and can be built upon, helping improve the climate not just in the military realm but in political, economic, and cultural spheres as well. There were many other factors that encouraged cooperation in the post-Cold-War years, including the extensive, multi-faceted activities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but CFE’s nuts-and-bolts approach and its focus on the destabilizing offensive weapons that had been the most potent manifestation of Cold War confrontation made its contribution unique.

CFE Implementation and Evolution 1990 - 1999
The groundwork for adapting to a post-Cold-War world was laid in the treaty during its negotiation. While it set equal overall ceilings for the two blocs, it also provided for individual national entitlements (“maximum levels for holdings”) within the bloc totals. In the weeks prior to treaty signing, NATO members had gathered in Brussels, and Warsaw Pact countries in Budapest, to set their individual levels. Similar exercises took place in May 1992, in Tashkent, when eight successor states divided Soviet TLE entitlements and in December 1992, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia divided the Czechoslovak entitlement. Following each change, the JCG (which had begun meeting just ten days after treaty signing) modified treaty language to include the new states and their treaty obligations. The treaty’s bloc-to-bloc structure was, de facto, being dismantled.

On July 9-10, 1992, the CFE states signed the Concluding Act of the Negotiations on Personnel Strength of Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE 1-A), a politically (vice legally) binding commitment whereby the CFE participants declared national ceilings on their armed forces personnel within the area of application. The number of troops would subsequently shrink by some three million. Personnel levels had been the focus of the unsuccessful MBFR talks but had not been included in the CFE negotiation because of verification difficulties. The self-declared CFE I-A personnel ceilings were meant to complement the treaty limits on equipment and enhance the developing security regime.

On July 17, 1992, following Russian ratification, the CFE treaty entered into force. The 120-day “baseline validation period” began the same day, as did inspections to verify the data that had been exchanged. (Participants were primed, having already carried out hundreds of mock inspections.) On November 14, the baseline period ended and the three-year “reduction period” began. There were several ways a state could meet its reduction quota (i.e., TLE in excess of national ceilings) but most equipment was destroyed, according to procedures specified in the treaty in minute detail.

There were some problems with reductions, including threats by several former Soviet republics to withdraw from the treaty if they did not receive financial assistance for destruction, and five states failed to meet their reduction quotas completely, but by the end of the reduction period in November 1995, more than 65,000 weapons systems had been eliminated, with Russia accounting for some 26% of the reductions.

In May 1996, the JCG conducted the first formal CFE review conference. (The treaty specified that reviews would be held 46 months after entry into force and at five-year intervals thereafter.) One issue addressed was Russia’s failure to fulfill its commitment to destroy TLE moved east of the Urals, but Russia recommitted itself to do so by the year 2000. The parties agreed that “atmospheric factors” could be taken into account. (The equipment, stored in the open, was gradually deteriorating, a fact that had eased NATO concerns almost from the beginning.)

Discord Over the Flanks
More noteworthy, the review conference addressed CFE’s biggest challenge to date: Russia’s failure to comply with treaty subceilings imposed to prevent dangerous concentrations of TLE in the so-called northern and southern “flank” zones of the area of application. Flank limits had been included at the insistence of Norway and Turkey, who had realized some months into the negotiation that CFE’s nested zone concept — which imposed ever-more stringent limits on TLE holdings the closer a zone was located to the line of East-West confrontation in central Europe — left areas farthest away subject only to the overall alliance limits. In theory, the Warsaw Pact could have located a large proportion of its TLE in its flank areas, thus posing a heightened threat to NATO’s own flank states. The real concern was the Soviet Union, but Norway, Greece, Iceland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey were also subject to alliance flank subceilings.

The Soviet Union, however — with two military districts in the north and two in the south that were located in the flanks — was the only state restricted by the flank subceiling as to where it could deploy forces on its own territory. After the demise of the USSR, both Russia and Ukraine were so affected, and the 1992 Tashkent Agreement specified subceilings for the flank area in each.

Faced since late 1994 with an uprising in Chechnya in the volatile Caucasus area, Russia failed to reduce its TLE to its permitted flank levels by the November 1995 deadline. Russian support as well for rebellions in Georgia (in South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and Moldova (in Transnistria) had slowed down its force withdrawals from those countries, adding even more to its flank holdings. Moreover, Russia was having trouble financing and absorbing forces being withdrawn from Eastern Europe and its former republics and wanted to use existing military installations in the flank area for redeployment.

In 1995, NATO offered to ease flank restrictions in Russia and Ukraine. At the time, NATO was seeking Russian cooperation for IFOR (the peace implementation force) in Bosnia and, longer term, hoped to get Russia to acquiesce in its (temporarily delayed) plan to accept new members. At the 1996 review conference, numerical and geographical changes to the flank rules for Russia and Ukraine were agreed, together with additional transparency measures to mitigate concerns of other flank states.

During the ratification process of the new flank agreement, some U.S. Senators expressed concerns that Moscow might use the new rules to prolong its presence in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan and that the Clinton administration was being overly generous in order to avoid trouble over NATO expansion. The Senate finally consented, but required additional assurances with regard to the sovereignty of the former Soviet republics.

NATO Expansion and Treaty Adaptation
In January 1994, NATO had established the “Partnership for Peace” — seen as a first step to NATO membership. A number of former Soviet republics and members of the Warsaw pact, as well as European neutrals, eventually joined. At the time, there were informal discussions in the JCG as to how NATO expansion might affect the CFE treaty. Russia was adamantly opposed, but probably not yet convinced that expansion would really take place. By 1995, though, Russia began to focus more seriously on NATO expansion and to consider ways CFE might be used to limit the threat it saw therein.

In April 1996, just before the first review conference, Russia put forth a proposal in the JCG to “modernize” CFE through the imposition of individual national ceilings, supplemented by a group ceiling for states that belonged to an alliance (i.e., NATO). The Russians also proposed freezing TLE holdings and prohibiting any additional stationing of foreign forces. Russia presumably hoped this would make NATO entry less attractive for new members, but if they were not sufficiently deterred, at least there would be significant restrictions on the amount of TLE on their territories. Russia was also hoping that in a comprehensive rewrite of CFE, the flank restrictions might be abolished.

NATO states were not enthusiastic about adapting the treaty, having just gone through the flank negotiation. Russia became insistent, however, feeling increasingly disadvantaged militarily. By this time, NATO TLE significantly outnumbered Russian holdings, a disparity that would grow when the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians joined NATO.

As for those prospective new members, they saw an advantage in altering the treaty and totally erasing the bloc structure that still linked them to and required a modicum of technical cooperation with Russia and other East bloc successor states. NATO finally became convinced that a major adaptation of the treaty could no longer be avoided if enlargement was to proceed and not undermine the entire treaty regime.

In September 1996, the JCG began to craft a mandate for adaptation and on December 1, its “Scope and Parameters” were agreed. A “wholesale renegotiation” was ruled out in favor of “specific adaptations.”[1]

Also in December, NATO proposed a new cooperative security partnership with Russia, and in May 1997, the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation” was signed, setting out principles; creating a Joint Council; proposing topics for consultation; and most importantly for Russia, advocating the prompt pursuit of CFE adaptation. Some hard-fought language sought to calm Russian anxiety about NATO enlargement:

The member States of NATO reiterate that they have no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members, nor any need to change any aspect of NATO's nuclear posture or nuclear policy and do not foresee any future need to do so. ….

NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces. Accordingly, it will have to rely on adequate infrastructure commensurate with the above tasks.[2]

Talks on adaptation had resumed in the JCG in January 1997, and agreement was reached on “Certain Basic Elements” in July. A preliminary adaptation agreement was signed on March 30, 1999. It was not legally binding but meant to focus the rest of the negotiations. For Russia, the handwriting was on the wall: It had failed to achieve major adaptation goals, including a group ceiling for NATO and the elimination of flank restrictions. Still — given the entry into NATO of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic that month — preserving CFE continued to be a high priority for Russia. This was further made clear when NATO began bombing Serbia that spring; Russia and Belarus threatened to walk out of the adaptation talks, but did not. The speed and effectiveness of the NATO air campaign, however, heightened Russian concerns. It subsequently pushed for, and obtained, the inclusion in the adaptation of notifications for certain deployments of combat aircraft and combat helicopters.

“The Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe” was signed on November 19, 1999 just prior to the Istanbul OSCE summit — exactly nine years after the Paris signing of the original CFE treaty.

Ceilings and Subceilings
At the heart of the adapted treaty are national ceilings on all five CFE weapons categories, including subceilings on heavier armored combat vehicles (ACVs) and subceilings on the number of ground TLE (tanks, artillery, ACVs) that could be held in active units (the remainder to be kept in designated storage depots). In addition, individual territorial ceilings limit the total ground TLE allowed on the territory of each participant. To the extent that there is headroom between a state’s national ceiling and its territorial ceiling, stationed forces of other participants are allowed.

National ceilings had been included in the original CFE treaty regime as a result of the division of bloc entitlements among alliance/former alliance members, but having them enshrined in the Adaptation Agreement underlines the sovereignty of individual states. The idea of territorial ceilings was a new one and designed to prevent destabilizing concentrations of TLE, replacing the nested zones of the original treaty. But while the original treaty’s zone concept had prevented such concentrations at or near the inner-German border, the new territorial ceilings would prevent such buildups throughout the area of application and, in the process, hopefully ease the growing concerns of Russia about being encircled by an ever-larger NATO. Russia had hoped to add territorial ceilings for aircraft and helicopters, but while they were limited under national ceilings, other participants felt that their inherent mobility precluded meaningful verification of territorial limits. Russia had to acquiesce.

In the Adaptation Agreement, countries set their own new ceilings, which could not exceed existing ones. The national ceilings of the then 19 NATO countries amounted to a cumulative entitlement of just under 80,000, a reduction of some 9,000 from the permitted levels of those same countries in the original treaty, but still well above their actual holdings, which by 1999 had decreased to 64,091. The United States’ shrank its entitlement the most, to 7,590 vice an existing limit of 13,088. Russia set its new ceilings just 385 TLE below its old ones, for a new entitlement of 28,931. It still had the highest ceilings of any state, but what mattered to Russia was its position vis-a-vis NATO, and that ratio was decidedly asymmetrical in NATO’s favor and would grow more so with the entry of yet more new members. For a struggling rump state nostalgic for the Soviet era, it seemed a bitter decline.

Most participants, including the three new NATO members and all flank states save Norway, notified identical national and territorial ceilings — leaving no headroom for foreign stationing. There was provision in the adapted treaty for raising national and territorial ceilings, but increases were limited and required corresponding decreases by at least one other party. A state could also increase its headroom for accommodating stationed forces by lowering its national ceiling, but any changes to ceilings or subceilings required advance notification and could incur political costs.

During the negotiations, the U.S. had suggested a “stability zone” as a way to meet Russian concerns about enlargement. It would have encompassed new NATO states plus Belarus, northwest Ukraine and Kaliningrad (that isolated wedge of Russia between Lithuania and Poland). In such a zone, territorial ceilings would be frozen. Russia reportedly liked the idea, but the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians did not, feeling it would make them second-class NATO states. In the end, they (plus Germany and NATO candidate Slovakia) made unilateral pledges freezing their territorial ceilings.

The Flanks (Again)
The Adaptation Agreement adopted the 1996 geographic and numerical flank revisions for Russia and Ukraine, and even increased the Russian ACV subceiling. At the same time, new restrictions on temporary deployments were added. In the original treaty, temporary deployments (time limit unspecified) that exceeded flank subceilings by up to 459 tanks, 723 ACVs and 420 artillery pieces were permitted within the flank territory of a state’s own group, as long as no more than a third (i.e., 153 tanks, 241 ACVs and 140 artillery pieces) were deployed to any one flank state. For years, Russia had made use of this exception to cover part of its excess TLE on the southern flank and NATO had not challenged these “temporary” deployments, considering them militarily insignificant. The adapted treaty, however, limited such deployments in the flanks to 153 tanks, 241 ACVs, and 140 artillery pieces and they could not be used at all for Russian ACVs. Moreover, for the first time, states outside of the flanks could make use of temporary deployments of this size and in “exceptional circumstances” could host deployments of up to 459 tanks, 723 ACVs and 420 artillery pieces.

The United States, in particular, had pressed to extend to all participants the right to exceed ceilings through temporary deployments, fearing otherwise that military flexibility would be unduly constrained by the lower ceilings of the adapted treaty and the consequently limited possibilities for permanent stationing. Some NATO states, led by Germany, were concerned that such deployments — particularly at the higher “exceptional” levels — could undermine stability. The Russians objected even more sharply — not only to the additional restrictions placed on flank states but to the new flexibility available to states outside the flanks. It managed only to secure additional transparency measures.

The issue of Soviet non-compliance with flank levels became more serious with Russia’s second intervention into Chechnya in August, 1999. In the process, it exceeded the flank limits in force as well as the more generous ones contained in the adaptation. Russia promised to abide by the flank rules once the war in Chechnya was over, but other participants were concerned and would soon demand additional assurances.

Interestingly enough, there is no mention of the subceilings and other flank restrictions in the treaty articles, reportedly a condition imposed by Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria, who did not wish to highlight the special regime. Rather, the flank restrictions can be deduced only by reading the footnotes to the protocol on territorial ceilings.

Other Provisions
In addition to the complex rules governing temporary deployments, there were provisions for temporarily exceeding ceilings during military exercises or transits and for transferring TLE from storage into active units. To increase transparency, the number of inspections each state party was required to accept on its territory was increased, as were information exchanges and notifications. Peacekeeping missions operating under UN or OSCE mandates were exempted from CFE ceilings.

It is not surprising that the adapted treaty emphasizes the consent of individual treaty participants to changes in its ceilings, the stationing of foreign forces, and the like — in some cases even requiring formal notification to other treaty participants.

Finally, the agreement provided for the accession of other states in Europe between the Atlantic and the Urals, provided they were OSCE members (thus leaving out Serbia). The three Baltic republics were expected to be first, which would meet an important Russian goal.

Istanbul “Final Act”
In conjunction with the signing of the adapted agreement, the CFE parties compiled a series of politically binding commitments (vice legally binding treaty responsibilities) in a document called the “Final Act.” In it, the new NATO members and candidate Slovakia pledged further reductions (unspecified) of their ceilings and holdings. Germany, Belarus, and Ukraine joined them in promising not to make use of their treaty rights to raise territorial ceilings. Moldova stated it would not accept any temporary deployments.

As the price for raising new concerns with its renewed offensive in Chechnya, Russia was forced to commit to a partial withdrawal of its TLE from Georgia within two years and to work out with Georgia a timetable for further Russian withdrawals and closure of its four bases there. Russia also promised to show restraint in its northern oblasts of Kaliningrad and Pskov (adjacent to the Baltic states), and the “Final Act” cited an earlier Russian pledge to withdraw Russian TLE from Moldova by the end of 2001.[3]

At the signing of the Adaptation Agreement, President Clinton, along with most of his fellow leaders, announced he would not submit it for legislative approval until Russia had complied with the ceilings set out therein. He did not refer to the continued presence of Russian troops in Georgia and Moldova as an obstacle to ratification (even though Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms had done so in advising him beforehand not to sign the adapted agreement.)

Clearly, Russia’s longstanding campaign to “modernize” the CFE treaty had brought it few of the changes it had sought. NATO, on the other hand, was more than satisfied. At the time of signing, one U.S. State Department official remarked that NATO “came close to getting everything it wanted.”[4]

Pending ratification, however, the original CFE treaty, as amended by the 1996 Flank Document, would remain in effect.

Ratification is Delayed
From the start, uncertainty shadowed the ratification process. In December 1999, the Russian Duma criticized the Yeltsin government for pledging to withdraw forces from Moldova and Georgia without linking that pledge to the granting of autonomy by those states to their rebellious provinces. Later that month, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and Vladimir Putin became acting Russian president. (He was elected the following May.)

Initially, the new Russian government seemed cooperative with regard to CFE. Putin told the press in 2000 that Russia would comply with its flank limits once the situation in Chechnya stabilized, and by the end of 2000 Russia had reduced its TLE in Georgia to the levels specified in the Istanbul timetable. At the second CFE review conference, May 28 to June 2, 2001, Russia complained about continued NATO expansion and warned against entry by any of the Baltic states, but reiterated its promises to meet its CFE obligations and was credited with meeting most of its 1991 commitment to destroy TLE moved beyond the Urals.

Russia only partially met a July 1, 2001, deadline, managing to close its Georgian base at Vaziani but leaving several hundred troops at the Gudauta facility in disputed Abkhazia. On November 14, 2001, Russia reported it had eliminated all its TLE in Moldova, beating the deadline by six weeks.

In July 2002, Russia claimed it was in compliance with its CFE flank limits. NATO accepted that report (Russia was refusing to host on-site inspections in the rebellious areas, citing the safety of inspectors) but then insisted that the adapted treaty could not be submitted for ratification until Russia had fulfilled its Istanbul pledges to withdraw completely from Moldova and Georgia. Russia objected, claiming that it needed another ten years to complete its withdrawal from Georgia and that, in Moldova, Transnistria separatists were blocking the removal of its remaining stocks, demanding that Russia write off their $100 million gas debt. It was clear that the Russians would miss their end-of-2002 deadline to remove 42,000 tons of ammunition and small arms and their military personnel still stationed there. They were given an additional year and some progress was made, but by the end of 2003, 26,000 tons of material remained, along with 36 ACVs (reported as ambulances) and 1,400 troops.

In December of 2003, at the OSCE ministerial in Maastricht, U.S. Secretary of State Powell pressed Russia to meet its withdrawal commitments, and while Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reaffirmed Russia’s intention to do so, he also — in his government’s most forceful reaction so far — rejected the West’s attempt to make fulfillment of those pledges a prerequisite for ratification of the adapted treaty. The refusal to bring the treaty into force, he said, “has led to a dangerous erosion… of the arms control regime in Europe.”[5]

Another round of NATO expansion was imminent (the three Baltic states and Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania would join in March 2004) and the Putin government was growing less cooperative. Russia was particularly anxious that the adapted treaty be in force by the time the Baltics joined NATO so they could accede to CFE, preventing any stockpiling of NATO TLE there. Looked at through Russian eyes, it was not an idle concern; there had already been talk within NATO of moving small contingents of U.S. forces from Germany into the Baltics and/or Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.

At the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy in February 2004, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recalled the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty (in 2002) and warned that CFE was becoming obsolete and could also end up being scrapped. He expressed concern about future NATO deployments in the Baltics and implied that Russia could reverse its reductions on the northern flank and in Kaliningrad.[6]

Despite its threats, however, Russia still seemed committed to CFE as a way to manage the growing Russian-NATO military imbalance. On June 25, 2004, the Russian Duma (lower house) approved the adapted CFE treaty by a vote of 355-28; the Federation Council (upper house) did so by 137-1. Putin signed the ratification on July 19. Russia was the fourth nation to ratify, following Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

In May 2005, Georgia and Russia reached an agreement whereby Russia would complete its withdrawal from its bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki by the end of 2008. There was no agreement, however, over the Gudauta base, where 300 Russian troops remained, and no recent progress had been made on withdrawals from Moldova.

In late 2005, the U.S. formally announced it would deploy 5,000 troops to Bulgaria and Romania on a rotating basis, part of a plan to position light, air-mobile forces for expeditionary missions outside Europe. In December, 2005, at the OSCE ministerial meeting in Ljubljana, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov maintained that Russia “has fulfilled without exception all of its commitments related to the CFE treaty.” While ministers welcomed its withdrawal agreement with Georgia, they pressed Russia, again, to complete withdrawals from Moldova.[7]

At the third CFE Review Conference, held May 20 - June 2, 2006, Russia complained bitterly about the failure of NATO nations to ratify the adapted agreement, and for the first time, some NATO states openly expressed concern about the standoff. The U.S. claimed, however, that the alliance was “hanging together.”[8]

U.S. Missile Defense in Europe
The U.S. had announced in 2004 that it wanted to base elements of a missile defense system in Europe to defend against possible launches from the Middle East. At the time, secret discussions were underway with the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary. In May 2006, a long-awaited NATO feasibility study was completed, and the following month, Foreign Minister Lavrov told the Duma such a system could pose a serious threat to Russia. The U.S. announcement in January 2007 that the system would be deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland brought a round of angry Russian reactions, with top Russian military leaders suggesting that Russia might withdraw from the INF Treaty (covering intermediate-range nuclear forces).

It had, of course, been the desire of the George W. Bush Administration to test and deploy a missile defense system to protect the U.S. against threats from terrorists and rogue states like Iran that had prompted U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2002. Russian reaction to the U.S. withdrawal and initial plans for missile defense in the U.S. had been muted, presumably because the technology was still untested and deployments not imminent. By 2007, though, the Russians apparently felt a more forceful response to the changing security situation in Europe was necessary. Not only were U.S. interceptors and radars bound for central Europe and U.S. troops scheduled to deploy to Bulgaria and Romania, but NATO aircraft were patrolling the borders of the Baltic states, the alliance had grown to 26 states, and the adapted CFE treaty remained unratified. The increasingly assertive Russian stance also had a lot to do with Putin’s changed fortunes. Seven years into his presidency, he was enjoying overwhelming popularity at home and leading a much more stable and prosperous Russia.

On February 10, 2007, he blasted the U.S. at the annual Munich security conference for the “hyper use of military forces” and attempting to achieve global hegemony. Dismissing a missile threat from Iran, he suggested that building a missile defense in Europe would trigger an arms race. He also bemoaned the failure to ratify CFE, criticized planned deployments to Bulgaria and Romania, and called NATO expansion “a serious provocation.”[9]

In April, in his annual address to the Duma, Putin suggested for the first time that Russia might pull out of the CFE treaty. The German daily Die Welt opined that the threat was designed to demonstrate determination as he sought to divide NATO, unite Russia, and satisfy the Russian military, and in the process, consolidate his power in his last year in power.[10]

In May, Russia called for an extraordinary meeting of the JCG, which took place June 11-15. Russia demanded that all states ratify the adapted treaty, or at least apply it provisionally, by July 1, 2008; that the Baltic states be included; that a new “group” limit (on NATO) compensate for NATO enlargement and U.S. deployments to Bulgaria and Romania; and that the flank limits be eliminated. NATO reiterated the need for Russia to fulfill its Istanbul commitments, but suggested that Russian troops could be part of an international peacekeeping force in Transnistria. Once those steps had been taken, NATO promised expeditious ratification of the adapted treaty, accession of the Baltics, and consideration of Russian demands in the flanks.[11] NATO proposed as well that an international fund help pay for the destruction and removal of remaining material in Moldova, and the Germans offered to lead a fact-finding mission to resolve issues over the Gudauta base in Georgia. Russia rejected Western proposals and its delegation head told the press that CFE suspension was “closer.”[12]

Russian “Suspension” of CFE
On July 14, Putin announced his decision to “suspend” Russian participation in CFE, and the 29 other participants were so notified. In accordance with treaty provisions, the decision would take effect in 150 days (i.e., on December 12, 2007). Putin cited “exceptional circumstances…which concern the security of the Russian Federation and require urgent measures.”[13]

Russia’s planned CFE suspension was harshly criticized by former Warsaw Pact members and Soviet republics. While NATO and the United States expressed disappointment and concern, they did not overdramatize the Russian move. On July 16, NATO called for a special conference to discuss the suspension. Russia refused, proposing instead to start work on an amended agreement in the fall. On July 18, Secretary of State Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke by telephone, reportedly agreeing that discussions about CFE would continue.

Russia’s intentions with regard to CFE are unclear at this point, and it seems likely that Putin is getting different advice from different quarters.

To start with, Putin’s use of the word “suspension” raises questions, since there is no such provision in the treaty. It recognizes only a right of “withdrawal” in case of “extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty” that jeopardize a nation’s “supreme interests.” “Suspension” may mean something short of withdrawal; following the failed extraordinary conference in June, Russian delegation chief Antonov told the press that under “suspension” Russia would exempt itself from ceilings and not participate in information exchanges or inspections — an approach he hoped would “revitalize the treaty.”[14]

However, the use of “suspension” may just accord with Russian law, which says only the Duma can terminate a treaty. In fact, on July 23, Putin submitted a draft bill to the Duma on CFE suspension. Echoing other officials in stressing the treaty could still be saved, Foreign Affairs Committee chair Konstantin Kosachev said “the time for consideration of the draft bill…will depend on reaction of other member-countries of the treaty.”[15] Committee hearings have since been scheduled for September and October.

Other voices have been less conciliatory. As Russia’s economy has improved and the government exercises more influence internationally, the military and other hardliners have been pressing not only to boost defense spending but to rectify international concessions Russia made during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras and during Putin’s first term. According to press reports, it was Chief of the General Staff Baluyevsky who initiated the move to withdraw from CFE, alleging it was damaging Russia’s defense capabilities. In addition to CFE, he said “there are other restrictive documents that need to be sorted out.”[16]

In a similar vein, Duma member Valentin Varennikov claimed Russia “slept through” the CFE Treaty.

At first, no one was concerned about new states appearing on the map of Europe — after all, it was announced that they would not be drawn into NATO… Very soon, practically all our Warsaw Pact allies had either joined NATO or expressed the wish to do so…. And in contrast to Russia, the Western countries have never ratified the CFE Treaty. So we were voluntarily driving ourselves into a corner — weakening our military capacities.”[17] According to Vladimir Socor, writing in the Eurasia Daily Monitor (published by the Jamestown Foundation, a Kremlin critic), the Russian administration gave the following reasons for the suspension:

  • The “illegitimate and invented” linkage by NATO states of their ratification of the Adapted Agreement to Russian withdrawals from Moldova and Georgia.
  • Continued Baltic freedom from CFE limits.
  • Increases of NATO TLE holdings due to NATO expansion (requiring “compensatory lowering” of NATO ceilings).
  • Planned U.S. deployments to Bulgaria and Romania.
  • Continued existence of flank limits.
  • Western failure to ratify the Adapted Agreement.

According to Socor, Russia’s policy on the CFE treaty had “undergone a sea change” in recent months. Until then, Russia had simply sought ratification of the adapted agreement and accession of the Baltics while maintaining its forces in Georgia and Moldova. Now, it was demanding comprehensive renegotiation of the treaty. But Socor noted that “these moves… bear the hallmarks of political bluffs” and that Russia was raising a wide range of security issues — CFE, U.S. missile defense plans, the INF treaty, U.S. deployments to Bulgaria and Romania, Kosovo (whose independence Russia opposes) — “attempting to draw the United States and NATO into at least one trade-off on which Russia could win.”[18]

Whether Russia’s threat to end compliance with CFE is a bluff remains to be seen. Russian leaders have been complaining about NATO expansion and aggressive U.S. foreign and military policies for more than a decade, but Putin may now feel he is in a position to do more than complain.

Planned U.S. deployments to flank states Bulgaria and Romania, presumably compliant with the adapted treaty and the Istanbul “Final Act” since they involve no permanent stationing of U.S. ground TLE, must be especially irksome to the Russians, given their own perennial problems with flank limits. Moreover, the Russians clearly see these deployments as reneging on NATO’s 1997 undertaking not to station “substantial combat forces” in new NATO states.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist, sees Moldova as key to Russian CFE suspension. “President Putin and other Russian officials… do not recognize the right of the West to impose on Russia such limitations and… do not want to withdraw their troops….”[19] Certainly, Russian withdrawals from Georgia and Moldova would weaken the separatist movements there and could eventually lead to reincorporation of the breakaway regions, losing for Russia footholds in the Caucasus and Black Sea areas — footholds that could be even more important if Georgia joins NATO as it hopes to do. (Moldova has indicated it will not seek membership.) According to Kommersant correspondent Boris Volkonsky, Moscow cannot allow reincorporation because it would “undermine confidence in the country’s leadership at home and put an end to Russia’s pretensions to rebirth as a great power…”[20] Another issue is “unaccounted for treaty limited equipment” (UTLE) transferred by Russia to the separatists; it contributes to instability and — in the absence of on-site inspections in the disputed areas — exacerbates doubts about Moscow’s compliance with treaty obligations. In any event, NATO is hoping to defuse the CFE crisis with a “creative compromise” on Moldova whereby the Russian presence would be “internationalized” within a broader peacekeeping mission.[21]

That may not be enough, though. By threatening CFE, Putin is responding to multiple perceived Western sins and seeking to advance diverse goals. A NATO compromise that would make ratification possible, clearing the way for Baltic accession and giving Russia more leverage over NATO and U.S. military activities (especially in the flank area, including the Caucasus) is presumably still one of them. But, as suggested by Socor, he may also be looking for U.S. or NATO concessions on other issues like missile defense and additional changes to the treaty, with discord within the alliance an added bonus.

Moreover, being tough with the West pleases the Russian military and right-wing conservatives as well as the public in general. Increased support for Putin’s party and disciples in upcoming elections (parliamentary in December and presidential in March) would help ensure his continued influence after he leaves office. Vladimir Ryzhkov, a democratic opposition leader in the Duma, sees Putin’s threats on CFE as “primarily an election-year message to the country [that] your leader won’t budge, no matter who…becomes the next President.”[22]

This high-profile challenge could also regain for Russia some of the international clout once wielded by the Soviet Union. This time, though, it will be based primarily on economic rather than military might, backed up by Russia’s enormous energy reserves. Commenting on Putin’s CFE announcement, The Economist noted, “What Russia wants… is respect for the petro-dollar-fuelled power it has become: treaties signed when it was weaker are targets.”[23]

So, it’s a question of how important CFE still is to the Russians, but the same question pertains to the U.S. and NATO. The treaty regime, with its focus on the offensive weapons systems that threatened Cold War Europe, is clearly no longer as relevant as it once was to European military security. At the same time, the transparency and cooperative security culture that CFE fostered continue to be of enormous value, and once abandoned, they would be difficult if not impossible to replace. In using CFE — or more precisely, their prolonged refusal to ratify the adapted agreement — to prod Russia out of Georgia and Moldova, the United States and NATO may have overestimated the treaty’s value to a Russia growing ever more prosperous and confident, and as they forged ahead with changes Russia had hoped the adapted treaty would prevent or limit, they may have undermined it. The U.S. arms control bureaucracy might have advocated for a longer view if it had not been largely dismantled in the preceding years as the United States increasingly turned its attention and resources to more pressing problems like terrorism and non-proliferation.

If Russia does suspend or withdraw from CFE, it seems unlikely that it would expand its military forces significantly; that would be expensive and would stoke anxiety among its neighbors and key European trading partners. It might well, however, shift some forces to its western borders and to the flanks and otherwise flex military muscle such as it recently did in resuming international flights of its Bear and Blackjack strategic bombers.

Gregory Govan, former ambassador and retired U.S. Army brigadier general who was Chief U.S. Delegate to the JCG from 1995-2001, is not optimistic but hopes that CFE will survive. While noting that the original concept of limiting five categories of weapons is outmoded and that a cooperative security system more in keeping with the realities of today’s Europe is needed, he believes that CFE on-site inspection, with the transparency it affords and the habits of compliance it has instilled, would be a great loss as would the voice that the consensus-based CFE forum gives to the small states that must maneuver between NATO and Russia.[24]

A meeting of CFE states to address the crisis has reportedly been scheduled for the fall. The level of representation will give some idea of how much the participants value CFE and how hard they will work to preserve it.

End Notes

[4] Arms Control Today, November 1999, www.armscontrol.org/act/1999_11/cfeno99.asp)

[8] Arms Control Today, July/August 2006. www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_07-08/EuropeArmsLimbo.asp)

[11] Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 4, No. 116: www.jamestown.org/edm/article.php?article_id=2372228

[14] Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 4, No. 115: www.jamestown.org/edm/article.php?article_id=2372227

[15] Regnum News Agency, 7/24/07: www.regnum.ru/english/russia/860648.html

[16] LexisNexis News, Press Extracts No. 132, July 26, 2007

[17] LexisNexis News, Press Extracts No. 132, 7/26/07

[20] Volkonsky quoted in article by Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College in 7/25/07 issue of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst: www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/4667

[24] E-mails with Amb. Gregory Govan, BG USA (ret), 9/6 — 9/8/07.


Janet Andres joined the Foreign Service in 1978. She served in Khartoum and Berlin, and in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and as deputy director in the Operations Center. She joined the CFE delegation in Vienna in 1987, and was political counselor/senior political advisor from 1988-91. She was Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé in Iceland, 1992-93, and on detail to CIA as executive assistant to the Director, 1993-95. From 1995 until her retirement in 1997, she was consul general in Frankfurt. Following retirement, she returned to graduate school to study mental health counseling and subsequently worked with victims of domestic and sexual abuse at a non-profit agency in Sarasota, Florida. She has degrees from the University of Florida, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Universitat Hamburg.

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