Russia’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty is especially problematic given Russia’s new practice of launching large-scale military exercises with little or no advance warning to NATO member.

Latvian and Canadian soldiers participate in helicopter insertion and live fire training. Photo: NATO

Artem Kureev, an expert from the Moscow-based think tank “Helsinki+”, has written a comprehensive review of the troubled history of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. As he correctly pointed out, when Moscow ended its participation in the treaty’s Joint Consultative Group last week, “Russia only confirmed the [2007] decision to suspend the CFE Treaty… In fact, Moscow has not attempted to fulfill any obligations under this Treaty for the last seven years.”

Both the 2007 suspension and the most recent exit serve as additional evidence of the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West, as well as Moscow’s renewed assertiveness. 

The original treaty was not a totally useless or dated instrument. Its successful negotiation in 1990 marked a major milestone codifying the Cold War’s end. By mandating major reductions in European armaments and establishing a system of confidence-building measures to mitigate fears of surprise conventional attacks throughout the continent, the CFE Treaty helped establish an environment conducive to further security cooperation between European states.

One source of East-West tension in the treaty has been that, when NATO governments accepted the revised CFE Treaty at the November 1999 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul, they linked it to the pledge made at the conference by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin to remove Russian military forces from Georgia and Moldova, which no longer wanted the troops.

NATO members have since refused to ratify the updated CFE Treaty since Russia has not completely removed all its troops, military equipment, and ammunition stockpiles from its neighbors’ internationally recognized boundaries in violation of the principles underpinning the Helsinki Agreement.

Russian officials have argued that unfavorable security considerations in both Georgia and Moldova have made a withdrawal imprudent, and that Yeltsin’s commitment was a non-binding political declaration. Subsequently, in 2008 Moscow recognized Georgia’s two separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, effectively placing their treaty limited equipment outside the CFE’s purview. The past year’s forced transfer of Crimea from Ukraine to Russia as well as the provision of arms to separatists in Ukraine further complicate any effort to restore even an amended treaty.

For their part, NATO governments still insist on the need to retain flank limits near Russia (of special importance to Turkey and the Baltic states) and for Russian troops to withdraw from countries where they lack host-nation consent. They see NATO membership enlargement as promoting regional stability by promoting peace and prosperity in previously troubled regions of Europe to the benefit of Russia and others.

A more recent Western concern is Russia’s practice of launching large-scale military exercises with little or no advance warning to NATO members or other countries. These drills could facilitate the kind of surprise attack the CFE was designed to prevent. Russia employs these “snap” drills to test its military’s day-to-day readiness without advanced notice to the troops. The Russian military used such an exercise to cover its military occupation of the Crimea in early 2014 and then to prevent Ukrainian forces from concentrating their attacks against the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. This week, the Russian Air Force moved TU-22M nuclear bombers to Crimea in another snap drill.

These snap exercises and assertive air patrol raise the risk of confrontations through misunderstandings. It is imperative that Russia and NATO renew their suspended defense dialogue to address these issues.

Kureev may be correct in stating, “The Russian side has given Brussels and Washington a clear signal that it is not prepared to waste its time with ineffective international agreements that do not work and do not take its interests into consideration.” For example, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that, while Moscow remained open to new arms control arrangements, Moscow no longer would seek to bring the revised CFE Treaty into force since Russia now wants to see even more changes in any new document.

Russian officials have also occasionally indicated that they might withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits Russia and the United States from developing, manufacturing or deploying ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers.

Fortunately, while there are currently no European legal limitations on the size of the Russian and NATO military forces in Europe, there are major practical limitations such as shrinking national defense budgets and many states’ decisions to deploy their forces to higher priority regions, such as the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

In addition, Russian policy makers have not left the INF Treaty, have fully implemented the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the United States, and are now cooperating with the West to craft a nuclear deal with Iran that will presumably contain a new consultative commission similar to the group that Russia recently exited to oversee the agreement’s implementation.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.