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Extraordinary Conference Fails to Achieve Agreement on CFE Treaty Dispute

Richard Weitz

The Russian government warned that it might implement its threatened unilateral “moratorium” on observing its commitments under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty after an extraordinary conference of the treaty signatories, held this past week in Vienna, failed to address Moscow’s concerns. Russia called for the emergency meeting, the first in CFE history, after complaining for months about the stalemated status of the treaty’s implementation.

Anatoly Antonov, the chief of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s security and disarmament department and head of the Russian delegation to the conference, told the session that Russia remains committed to conventional arms control in Europe. Nevertheless, he argued that “Europe has changed, and this circumstance necessitates a modernization of the set of tools used to achieve these goals.”

Another member of the Russian delegation, Mikhail Ulyanov, explained that such “modernization” would require taking into account NATO’s post-1999 enlargement, which brought 10 East European countries into the alliance by 2004. In addition, he called for further relaxations of the restrictions limiting Russia’s flexibility to deploy troops on its northern and southern flanks. Russian officials complain that the CFE treaty constrains their deployments while not affecting the expanding U.S. military presence in southeast Europe.

After the June 12-15 conference ended without agreement, or even a joint final communiqué, Antonov told reporters that Russia’s efforts to reform the treaty to keep it viable had been met with “fine, polite, elegant lip service.” Karin Look, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Verification and Arms Control issues, replied that the parties had addressed Russia’s complaints “seriously and cooperatively.” Look criticized the Russian delegation for resorting to “Cold War rhetoric,” lamenting that, “It’s that drumbeat again.”

The original CFE Treaty was concluded by the 22 countries of NATO and the now dismantled Warsaw Pact in 1990. Since the accord entered into force, European countries have removed more than 60,000 tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters from military service.

All 30 parties to the treaty signed a CFE Adaptation Agreement (pdf file) at the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November 1999. This amended version replaced the obsolete bloc-to-bloc and zonal limits on military forces with a system of national and territorial boundaries. Yet, only four of the signatories—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia—have since ratified the 1999 agreement. Slovenia and the Baltic states, which became independent countries after 1990 and later joined NATO, have declined even to sign the original treaty.

NATO governments have refused to ratify the adaptation agreement until Russia fulfills the commitments it made at the Istanbul summit to withdraw all its military bases from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova. Although Russian military forces have withdrawn from three of the ex-Soviet military bases there, a Russian “peacekeeping contingent” remains in the Georgian region of Abkhazia. The Georgian government accuses the force, located at the Gudauta military base, of helping to sustain the pro-Moscow separatist regime there.

In addition, the Russian military has kept a unit in the self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria in Moldova. Its main function is to guard the estimated 20,000 tons of ammunition and equipment left behind from the Soviet military occupation. Despite the unit’s presence, transnational criminal networks have sold many of these small arms to combatants in the northern Caucasus, central Africa, and other conflict regions.

Russian officials reject NATO’s insistence that a formal link exists between the CFE’s implementation and a Russian military withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova. For example, in a June 6 news conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced NATO’s “artificial” strategy of linkage as reflecting “political” rather than “legal” considerations.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address on April 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Federal Assembly that, since NATO countries have refused to ratify the adaptation agreement, “all that this treaty means is that we face restrictions on deploying conventional forces on our own territory.” Putin called this uniquely discriminatory burden intolerable. To the applause of the Russian legislators in the audience, Putin also warned that his administration might impose a moratorium on CFE participation unless the other parties fulfilled their commitments and stopped seeking to “gain unilateral advantages” at Russia’s expense by, for example, proceeding “to build up their own system of military bases along our borders.”

In his lengthy interview with newspaper journalists from the other G-8 member countries a few days before the Heiligendamm summit, Putin complained that, while “Russia is disarming unilaterally,” the other CFE countries had refused to reciprocate. “On the contrary, Europe is being pumped full of new weapons systems. . . . We implemented it. And in response we get bases and a missile defense system in Europe.”

Immediately before the Vienna conference, Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Euro-Asian Affairs, indicated that the U.S. government would consider further revisions in the treaty to meet Russia’s concerns regarding its flank deployments, but only after Russia fulfilled its commitments to withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova. The United States and other NATO governments have suggested replacing the 700 Russian soldiers in Transnistria with international peacekeepers, but Russian government representatives insist they need to keep their 14th Army there to guard the remaining Soviet-era munitions. They also warn that withdrawing their forces from Abkhazia would only lead to renewed fighting there.

After the conference ended, Antonov reassured listeners that his government did not immediately plan to abandon the treaty but would “carefully analyze and ponder” the stalemate and decide what to do next. He warned, however, that Russia might have to suspend its implementation if the CFE remained unaltered for another year. Antonov explained that the current limitations on Russia’s ability to move forces within Russia’s own borders were especially intolerable: “We’re not reaching for the skies. We’re not shooting for the moon. We’re just trying to re-establish the viability of the treaty.”

Russian government officials also deny a link exists between the current dispute over the U.S. and NATO ballistic missile defense initiatives and their threats to suspend Russia’s adherence to the CFE Treaty. Nonetheless, the dispute probably was a contributing factor—at least by providing an excuse for Russian officials to force a resolution of issues related to the treaty that had long concerned them.

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