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Yuri Nadtochei

Ph.D in History, Assistant professor of the Chair of International Relations and Diplomacy at the Moscow Humanitarian University

On March 10, 2015 Anton Mazur, head of the Russian Delegation to the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control, announced that Russia was “suspending its participation” in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). This decision was hardly a sensation, rather a logical conclusion of the whole story of the Treaty, whose provisions had remained ink on paper since being adapted at the OSCE Istanbul summit back in 1999.

On March 10, 2015 Anton Mazur, head of the Russian Delegation to the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control, announced that Russia was “suspending its participation” in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). This decision was hardly a sensation, rather a logical conclusion of the whole story of the Treaty, whose provisions had remained ink on paper since being adapted at the OSCE Istanbul summit back in 1999.

The ratification of the Istanbul agreement by only four of the 30 signatories – Belorussia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine – and Moscow’s subsequent calls to the other parties to follow the suit fell short. The Treaty has effectively been dormant since 2007, the year Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty. The control of conventional armed forces in Europe was carried out through other cooperation formats, more convenient than the cumbersome CFE Treaty – primarily through the Treaty on Open Skies (TOS) and the Vienna Document 2011 on Confidence and Security Building Measures (VD 2011).

Unlike the CFE Treaty, neither of these documents set any “ceilings” for military equipment or arms of the participating states. They only facilitate “mutual observation”, providing the necessary transparency in the military sphere (surveillance flights, exchange of military information, etc.).

The CFE Treaty itself, focused on the quantitative limitation or arms, was more of a symbol of the bygone perestroika era – when relations were defined by the diplomacy of trade-ins and bargaining between the USSR on the one hand, and the West, represented by NATO, on the other. Bristled up with tank divisions, superpowers and their allies could negotiate the number of armed vehicles they were willing to give up without compromising their “reasonable sufficiency”.

In the early 21st century, however, arrangements like these seemed downright archaic. The military-technological revolution, which brought about high-precision mobile weaponry, turned the CFE Treaty’s area-based limitations a relic of the past.

ITAR TASS (In Russian)

Modern conflict scenarios are far from those envisioned during the Cold War, in which tank divisions played the key role in prevailing over a potential enemy. Modern wars are won not by large armies on battlefields, but by the quality of electronic intelligence (ELINT), information systems command, control and communications, and precision target indication. Therefore, the CFE Treaty is simply not capable of averting hybrid wars, with their abundant use of drones, new missile systems, and high mobility combat groups using guerrilla tactics.

It is safe to say that Russia’s official exit from the CFE will not cause any fundamental changes to the military and political situation in Europe, whose dramatic deterioration might be possible even with Russia still honouring its CFE commitments. That being said, suspension of commitments doesn’t technically mean a legal withdrawal from the document, but a mere suspension of participation in the Joint Consultative Group (JCG), which doesn’t constitute a withdrawal, or denunciation, in and of itself. Under the Treaty, it’s only done by conference of participating states.

In any case, it is no coincidence that the fate of the CFE Treaty was sealed during a new cycle of tension between Russia and the NATO. NATO’s growing military activities close to the Russian borders, as well as Russian air forces’ return visits to the NATO airspace, prompted Moscow to resolve the CFE issue to good – a move the Russian government had been saving for a good window of opportunity, which has finally opened.

The expected reaction of NATO countries to Russia’s CFE demarche is exactly what Moscow had been counting on, having exhausted its diplomatic eloquence trying to convince its Western partners that continued sanctions and isolation of Russia are destructive.

It is unlikely, however, that Russia’s decision on the Treaty will trigger any substantial measures from Washington or the European capitals. The wheel of Western sanctions has already gained full momentum, and even the Minsk negotiations breakthrough in February 2015 showed that its spinning will not be affected by any transitory crisis diplomacy decisions. In this context, Russia’s CFE Treaty gambit can neither substantially harm Moscow’s relationships with Washington and Brussels nor tangibly improve them.

Nonetheless, there is an important aspect to the CFE story that renders the document some nostalgic value. And it is not as much the contents as it is the spirit of the Treaty, adopted in the twilight years of the Cold War and symbolizing a path to the “Common European Home” that was never built.

Throughout the multiple crises and conflicts between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic block (stretching from Yugoslavia to Georgia), the Treaty remained a vestige of the pre-Maidan and pre-Kiev system of European security agreements, through participation in which Russia and the West were moving toward mutual integration and partnership. Almost all of these instruments – from the Founding Act to the Vienna Document – were signed at the same time as the CFE Treaty, and ended up outliving it. The question now is, for how long?

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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