“Russia is using strong medicine to push the U.S. and allies to ratify the CFE, which Moscow does not want to lose,” said Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and veteran of Soviet delegations to Gorbachev-era arms talks. “Russia is not interested in unregulated force build-ups in Europe. Neither is America, which has wider interests in keeping Russia within the framework of the CFE. [Washington] should have ratified it. Europe will fall in line if it does. [But] Washington wants to be seen as sticking up for the pro-western governments of Georgia and Moldova.”
The result is a game of geopolitical chicken, which could result in both sides shooting over a cliff.
Meetings on the sidelines of last week’s NATO foreign minister’s conference in Brussels failed to close the NATO-Russia gap. After the final session of the NATO-Russia Council, both sides expressed frustration. "The fact that an important document has been blocked due to the absolutely ideological position of our American colleagues, who are trying to force us to annul Russia's law on the Conventional Forces in Europe [CFE] treaty, obviously is a cause for regret," said Sergei Lavrov.
U.S. Secretary of State Rice also found the impasse “regrettable,” but refused to decouple CFE ratification from the question of Russian peacekeepers and troops in Georgia Moldova.
According to Russian arms control expert Alexei Arbatov, there is no basis for this linkage.
“The [negotiated CFE amendments] do not imply the withdrawal of troops by a certain date,” wrote Arbatov in a recent article distributed by RIA/Novisti. “They only provide for a relevant agreement, for instance with Georgia, where Russia only has peacekeepers rather than bases, which is a fundamental difference. Withdrawal of peacekeepers is linked with the settlement of the relevant conflicts rather than the CFE Treaty.”
The view that the U.S. should decouple the Georgia and Moldova issue from CFE ratification is widely shared by the international arms control community. Earlier this month nearly 50 former officials and arms experts across the Cold War divide published an appeal to break the logjam and rescue the CFE.
“We firmly believe that all the parties should abide by the core CFE principles and that current disagreements must not be allowed to erode or destroy a regime fundamental to the security of the whole of Europe,” reads the statement. “All states and peoples of Europe would lose if the CFE regime, an unprecedented instrument for the preservation of peace and with greatest importance to Europe’s future, would now be destroyed.”
After the Russian moratorium goes into effect, attention shifts to Saturday, December 15, Russia’s first deadline to submit a CFE report after its announced suspension. Failure to meet its CFE obligations could begin the process of further unraveling western support for the treaty and making ratification even more unlikely.
“At the moment no one is serious about a military conflict in Europe,” says Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow. “But while there would be no immediate military result of CFE [collapsing], there would be considerable political and psychological fallout.”
This metaphorical fallout may not seem like such a big deal at the moment. But when it comes to NATO-Russian relations, it’s good to remember that the specter of the other kind of fallout is never hiding that deep in the shadows.