The Death of the CFE Treaty: A Chance to Start Again?

The Russian Federation has withdrawn from a treaty governing military activities in Europe, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Elizabeth Zolotukhina says this act confirms a mutual suspicion going back as far as 2007, and would be fruitless if resurrected. Instead the West should focus on other treaties where Russia may still want cooperation.


On March 11, 2015 the Russian Foreign Ministry announced Moscow’s decision to halt participation in the Joint Consultative Group (JCG) of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. The move completed Russia’s de facto withdrawal from “the most comprehensive conventional arms control treaty in history,” and one that took decades to negotiate. Moscow’s choice was not surprising, long in the making, and the result of Russia’s dissatisfaction with the JCG mechanism and with the CFE accord itself. Now that it is a fait accompli, the key question is how to bolster the conventional arms control regime in Europe.

The accord, signed in November 1990, set individual limits on five major conventional weapons systems – tanks, combat armored vehicles, artillery, assault helicopters, and combat aircraft – possessed by NATO and the then-extant Warsaw Pact. The CFE agreement also included a series of reporting requirements regarding various military exercises and other activities. Implementation of the treaty has resulted in the destruction of more than 60,000 pieces of equipment.

Despite this success, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact prompted the conclusion of a revised treaty in 1999, the adoption of which was not unproblematic. NATO members refused to ratify the revised CFE accord until Moscow withdrew its troops from the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. For its part, Moscow long had hoped to use the JCG of the CFE to discuss issues related to conventional weapons control in Europe. For that reason, Russia did not withdraw from the JCG when it decided to suspend its participation in the CFE treaty in December 2007. To justify the decision, Russian President Vladimir Putin had cited challenges such as; “NATO’s membership enlargement, the alliance’s establishment of military facilities in Eastern Europe, the unbalanced distribution of on-site inspections and U.S. development of missile defenses and other new disruptive weapons not included in the original treaty.”

The recent withdrawal from the CFE was prompted by Moscow’s realization that “the US had forbidden its allies to discuss any substantive issues in the JCG” and was accompanied by similar complaints as the 2007 suspension. Russian analysts have lauded Moscow’s decision to withdraw from the accord, while their Western counterparts have expressed some concern regarding the development.

It is worth noting that this act was a long time coming. Since the 2007 suspension, 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 CFE treaty. This fact, although not perceived in Europe as a threat at the time, has since increased in importance due to the large-scale military modernization program Moscow has undertaken since the 2008 Georgian war. Eager to obtain a more complete picture of Russian conventional military capabilities, NATO members may consider accepting Moscow’s offer to work towards a replacement accord to the CFE treaty.

However, such a course is fraught with challenges. First, the parties continue to disagree as to how to address the location of Russian troops in non-NATO countries. Second, the prospect of negotiating a new accord and subsequently ensuring its ratification by all current CFE treaty parties is daunting. Third, the parties concerned are likely to try and link other issues to the discussions to gain leverage. Finally, many armaments limited by the existing CFE accord are held not by Moscow, but by Russian-backed paramilitary groups. This fact renders CFE enforcement difficult.

Instead of pursuing the likely unsuccessful tack of attempting to revive the CFE under its present, or a different guise, NATO allies should aim to stabilize treaties under duress. These include the 2010 New START accord and the 1987 Intermedia-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Doing so may “prevent the unraveling of nuclear arms control, both in regard to the limitation of nuclear weapons and their proliferation.”


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