As might be expected, Russia’s full withdrawal from the CFE Treaty has resulted in a flurry of negative statements from Western politicians. But should we really be concerned about a treaty that was already showing signs of being obsolete?

Paratroopers from Training Center No. 242 of the Russian Airborne Force prepare to board aircraft at the Chkalovsky airfield in Omsk. Photo: Alexey Malgavko / RIA Novosti

On March 10, the head of the Russian delegation at negotiations discussing military security and arms control, Anton Mazur, announced that as of March 11, Moscow will cease its participation in the Joint Consultative Group within the framework of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). In this manner, Russia has finally withdrawn from the treaty that it suspended back in 2007.

Russia’s complete withdrawal from the CFE Treaty has caused a flurry of statements from Western politicians who responded negatively to Russia’s decision. Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said of the treaty: “[It] was one of the factors that we have had peace in Europe for the last 25 years.” He also noted, however, “It was the Russian side that for many years has tried to reform the CFE Treaty and make it relevant to actual circumstances. Essentially, the cessation of the treaty is simply a statement of its complete ineffectiveness.”

By and large, the CFE Treaty was late in coming. It was signed in Paris on November 19, 1990 by 16 NATO member states and six members of the Warsaw Pact as a natural result of a warming of relations in Europe resulting from perestroika in the Soviet Union. At the time, it was already clear that there would be no return to the former European system. Socialist countries had essentially left Moscow’s sphere of influence after a series of “Velvet Revolutions” in 1989 and already had installed pro-Western governments.

In the document, NATO and the Warsaw Pact agreed to limit the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery and military aviation in the “area of application” – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. Each bloc would have 20,000 tanks, 30,000 armored combat vehicles, 20,000 artillery with a caliber greater than 100mm, 6,800 military airplanes and 2,000 helicopters. The parties would have 40 months after the CFE Treaty came into force to reduce their weapons to the necessary quota. 

Furthermore, additional limitations were agreed on to limit the quantity of military equipment in “flanking regions” (areas adjacent to the blocs). In addition, there was provided a detailed mechanism for mutual monitoring of the execution of the treaty by establishing groups of inspectors and providing information on troop locations and movements.

One should observe that the CFE Treaty demanded that both blocs should determine among themselves their quota of military equipment. So the Warsaw Pact countries came to an agreement on this shortly before the signing of the CFE Treaty, signing the appropriate agreement in Budapest on November 3, 1990.

The CFE Treaty came into force on November 9, 1992. More than a year earlier, on July 1, 1991, the Warsaw Treaty was annulled, and several new countries appeared in the post Soviet space, each with its own army and military equipment. Under these circumstances, on May 15, 1992 the Tashkent Agreement was signed, distributing the quota for the former Soviet Union between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Of the 13,500 tanks granted to the Soviet Union, only 6,500 remained with the Russian Federation; at the same time, Ukraine had the opportunity to possess 4,080. However, the Tashkent Agreement never came into effect – Azerbaijan and Georgia refused to ratify it. Furthermore, the Baltic republics didn’t participate in the CFE Treaty at all. Russia fulfilled de facto the terms of the Tashkent Agreement, reducing the quantity of its military equipment in the European part of the country.

A further test for the treaty was the first Chechen campaign, which took place within a designated “flanking zone” with additional limitations on the quantity of military equipment. With the start of military operations, Russia was forced to break the terms of the CFE Treaty, but announced it and launched an initiative to reexamine the agreement about flanking zones, which it managed to achieve in May 1997.

The treaty had lost its original meaning already in the early 1990s. The confrontation of two ideological or military blocs no longer existed. Instead, Moscow’s former allies in the Warsaw Pact and Baltic republics aimed to join NATO and the difficult economic situation did not allow Russia to build up its armed forces. In 1999 three former Soviet allies – Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – joined the North Atlantic alliance. 

Now the balance of power had changed even from a formal point of view. In connection with that, at the Istanbul Summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, on November 19, 1999, an agreement was signed to adapt the CFE Treaty altering several provisions to meet the current circumstances. At the same time, the quota for the number of forces practically did not change, so that NATO continued to maintain a European superiority in the number of tanks of 3:1. 

Then again, NATO countries failed to ratify the new agreement. Furthermore, neither the Baltic states nor the Balkan countries in the treaty participated. However, having put forward their candidacies to join NATO, they nonetheless did not join.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (sixth from right) and the Heads of State and Government during the Air power flypast. Photo: NATO

Over the last few years, Russia has followed policies to fulfill the terms of the treaty, while at the same time, a number of NATO countries have essentially breached its requirements, periodically refusing to provide information to the Russian side or allow inspections. Pouring oil on the flames was the decision to deploy a missile defense system in Europe. This is not a breach of the CFE Treaty but goes strongly against its spirit. 

In addition, NATO continued to expand right to Russia’s border. Nonetheless, it was Moscow that has attempted for the last time to save the treaty. In June 2007, at Russia’s initiative, an extraordinary conference was called at Vienna for countries participating in the CFE Treaty during which representatives of the Russian Federation put forward several logical conditions:

• Include Baltic countries in the treaty;

• Reduce the total quantity of NATO military equipment;

• Cancel the flanking zone limitations for Russia;

• Confirm that the agreement on adapting CFE Treaty should come into effect by July 1, 2008;

• Ensure that the altered treaty should be open for any European country that is a member of the OSCE.

These proposals were not accepted. The basis of the objection by NATO representatives was that Russia had not withdrawn its forces from the territory of Moldova (Transdniestr) and Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), although having equipment located there in no way exceeds the quota. 

Tellingly, the presence of Russian units in unrecognized states is the main argument the West uses at negotiations with Russia, which enables it to shift responsibility to Russia for failing to meet the conditions of the treaty. For NATO countries, the complete withdrawal of troops is a necessary condition for them to agree to ratify the Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

On July 13, 2007, Vladimir Putin signed an order on the cessation of the CFE Treaty, including a memorandum that clearly states that the treaty would not be in effect for Russia “until NATO countries ratify the Agreement on the Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and begin in good faith to execute the document.” 

Furthermore, the moratorium on the CFE Treaty only entered into force 150 days after the order was signed, giving NATO the opportunity to finally ratify the Agreement on Adaptation, in this way preserving the effectiveness of the treaty. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the USSR, who signed the CFE Treaty when he was in power, positively received this step. “Here it is clear that Russia’s rights are being abused, and that our partners are not acting like partners,” announced the former Soviet leader the day after Vladimir Putin signed the order.

At the time of the suspension of the CFE Treaty by Russia, its armed forces consisted of more than 21,000 tanks, which was used by a number of experts and politicians as evidence that Moscow not fulfilling the treaty obligations. However, the Russian side clearly complied with all its obligations, by placing all military equipment that exceeded the established quota for the country beyond the Urals. 

It should also be noted that most of the arms are obsolete or mothballed, and hence the actual number of units is considerably less than the amount indicated by statistical reports. In any case, since 2007 all Russian cooperation within the framework of the CFE Treaty was reduced to the work of the Joint Consultative Group. In this case, in the statement of March 10, Anton Mazur noted that the group not only failed to carry out practical work, but did not discuss the possibility of new agreements on arms limitation. 

Thus, in March 2015, Russia only confirmed the decision to suspend the CFE Treaty, adopted in 2007. In fact, Moscow has not attempted to fulfill any obligations under this Treaty for the last seven years.

It is clear that already in 1990 the CFE Treaty was an obsolete concept. This treaty needed numerous changes and corrections that never entered into force. It would have been much more effective to replace it with a new agreement which took into account the current political reality and the interests of all participants.

Now Russia and NATO need to start a new dialogue from square one. Furthermore, 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.

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