At midnight on Wednesday, December 12, Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. Also known as “the cornerstone of European security,” the CFE is the most important of three arms treaties that effectively ended the Cold War. In symbol and practice, the it is a massive achievement that was greeted by global euphoria when signed in Paris in November 1990 by NATO and Warsaw Pact leaders.
Considerably less attention is being paid to its slow-motion passing. While Russia's moratorium is a solemn event for arms control wonks from the Atlantic to the Urals, few others will take serious note. With so many hot wars raging, I suppose it’s hard for people to get too worked up over the critical condition of a Bush I-era piece of paper.
I realized just how little attention the unraveling of landmark arms control regimes is getting when I started making background calls for this article. “Thank you for taking an interest in this subject!” more than one think-tanker told me with surprising think-tank enthusiasm. They obviously haven’t been overwhelmed by reporters curious about the hardening security deadlocks between Russia and the West, which on paper at least is starting to look like the end of the Cold War being played back in reverse. The CFE is just the latest end-of-the-Cold War treaty whose future is in doubt.
It is also the most lovable. The other two treaties that formalized the end of the Cold War arms race—START and INF—were nuke treaties that left massive hair-trigger nuclear arsenals on both sides. It’s hard to feel too fuzzy about those. The 1972 ABM Treaty was a lovable regime, simple in logic and clean in sweep, but it’s been dead for six years. The START process and the INF Treaty may not be far behind, a reality tied to the 2001 U.S. withdrawal from the ABM. The CFE's problems also cannot be completely separated from U.S. plans for missile defense stations in Europe. Like the CFE, they used to call the ABM a "cornerstone" of strategic stability. Its death is an object lesson in what happens when you start messing around with cornerstones.
The CFE essentially replaced the Berlin Wall with a Plexiglass Panopticon, making force deployments around Europe transparent to all. An ambitious and successful collective security regime, it made massive surprise attacks on the continent impossible. It did this very simply: by forcing the Cold War players to reduce their conventional arsenals and show their hands. The CFE cut and regulated the numbers of troops, tanks, planes, attack helicopters, and artillery along European fault lines. As an added bonus, the treaty does away with the temptation to place short-range nukes in Europe as a hedge against conventional surprise attack. As they say, it’s win-win.
So why is Russia suspending compliance? Is the country planning another massive conventional buildup along its western border? Is Moscow, as claimed by U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, “unilaterally walking out of one of the most important arms-control regimes of the last 20 years”?
No. If that were the case, Moscow would have simply withdrawn from the treaty, as Washington withdrew from ABM, and not announced a moratorium months in advance while expressing hope that the treaty would be saved.
Russia is suspending compliance because a lot has changed since the original treaty was signed in 1990. The CFE was updated in 1999 to reflect these changes, but most Western nations, led by Washington, have refused to ratify CFE 2.0, negotiated in Istanbul in 1999. “We will not wait forever,” Vladimir Putin said last month, explaining the decision.
The West is refusing to ratify the new CFE because of the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Georgia (Abkhasia and South Ossetia) and Moldova (Transdnestr), as well as a few hundred troops guarding a 20,000-ton ammunition depot in the latter. Washington says these deployments violate the letter and spirit of the CFE treaty and must be removed before ratification. Russia believes the same is true of U.S. missile defense stations in Europe and NATO expansion, but has not let that stop it from recognizing the larger importance of the CFE. Russia ratified the amended version in 2004.