BACKGROUND: The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, perhaps the most comprehensive conventional arms control treaty in history, helped consolidate the end of the Cold War and the Russian military withdrawal from Central Europe. The treaty, signed in Paris in 1990, established limits on the major conventional weapons systems that could be deployed in Europe west of the Ural Mountains and mandated reporting and notification of large military activities in that region.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent successor states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine reached an agreement in 1992 at Tashkent to divide the USSR’s CFE arms quotas among themselves. For example, Russia was allowed to have as many as 6,400 tanks as its share of original 13,500 tanks granted the Soviet Union. However, Azerbaijan and Georgia never ratified the Tashkent Agreement, while other countries rapidly fell below their CFE-mandated force limits due to their post-Cold War defense cuts.
Of greater importance for the military balance in the Caucasus region is that the CFE Treaty established geographic sub-regions with stricter ceilings on ground-based weapons such as tanks, armored combat vehicles, and artillery pieces. One of these covers parts of southern Russia (the former Soviet North Caucasus Military District, which includes Chechnya), parts of northern Turkey, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece.
The Russian government quickly exceeded its southern flank limits by deploying additional military forces in the Caucasus after the Russian military intervened to suppress separatist forces in Chechnya. At the 1996 CFE Treaty Review Conference, the State Parties relaxed some limits on the Russian forces there in return for Moscow’s supplying additional information about Russian military activities in the zone.
The State Parties tried to achieve more comprehensive changes at the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, where they forged an Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. This Adapted CFE would replace the obsolete bloc ceilings with a system of national limits and make explicit the requirement for host nation consent for foreign bases and deployments. But all the NATO governments plus the neutral CFE parties have refused to ratify the Adopted Treaty because Russia has not withdrawn its military forces from Georgia’s autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as Moldova’s Russian-speaking separatist region of Transnistria. Those deployments do not comply with the treaty’s principle that foreign troops can only remain in a host country with the consent of its internationally recognized government.
Following years of fruitless talks, at the end of 2007 Russia “suspended” its implementation of the CFE Treaty. After that, the Russian government has failed to provide treaty-required data about the size, location, and activities of its treaty limited equipment (TLE) west of the Ural Mountains – either on Russian territory or in the occupied territories of Georgia and Moldova – and has denied CFE routine as well as challenge inspections on these territories. The U.S. State Department concluded in a January 2014 report that Russia has been violating the overall limits for active military units as well as the more restrictive force limits that apply to Russia’s flank regions.
IMPLICATIONS: In retrospect, NATO’s failure to seriously challenge Moscow’s treaty violations in 2007 was a serious mistake. The CFE States Parties largely ignored the Russian suspension, merely calling on Moscow to resume participation; they continued to share data with Russia and adhere to the treaty themselves. It was only in November 2011 that NATO members, joined by Georgia and Moldova, followed Moscow’s lead and ceased providing CFE-related data to Russia.
One reason for the lackadaisical Western response, which encouraged further treaty violations, was that the Russian military in 2007 was large but weak and unlikely to present a major threat to its neighbors or anyone else. But then Russia and Georgia went to war in August 2008, abruptly undermining the prospects of the treaty’s renewal or replacement. The Russian military performance, though mediocre, was good enough to overwhelm Georgia’s weaker military and occupy the country’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The war itself inflicted another serious blow on the treaty. The Russian government subsequently recognized these two regions as independent states, which have since allowed the Russian armed forces to establish large bases on their territories, located in the heart of the CFE’s most sensitive sub-zone, as well as take charge of their local defense militias. It now looks like Moscow might annex these territories outright, as in Crimea. Russia’s mixed performance in the Georgia War also spurred Moscow to implement comprehensive military reforms that have made the Russian armed forces a much more formidable foe than in 2007.
The inadequate Western effort to uphold the CFE Treaty has worsened the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According the State Department, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are violating the CFE Treaty by exceeding their arms quotas, failing to fully report their military holdings and activities, and, in the case of Armenia, “stationing … forces on the territory of Azerbaijan without Azerbaijani consent.” Although the State Department report notes that “a successful political settlement to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict could have a positive impact on Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s ability to resolve their Treaty compliance issues,” no NATO country has made this a priority in recent years.
Meanwhile, fears persist that either or both countries will also withdraw from the CFE Treaty. Although the Treaty constrains a regional arms race, Armenia and Azerbaijan have for years accused each other of violating the CFE. Russia has been fueling tensions by becoming the main arms supplier to both Azerbaijan and Armenia to gain leverage over both countries, which also ensues from the two Russian military bases in Armenia.
Russia’s withdrawal from the JCG has not yet provoked a major response from Turkey, but Moscow’s failure to comply with its CFE obligations has remained a source of tension between the two countries, along with Syria and Russian occupation of the Crimea. Ankara’s policy still affirms the importance of the flank ceiling limiting Russian military activities near Turkey’s border and strives to avert another Russian military intervention like that against Georgia in 2008.
In this regard, the Russian armed forces have recently been conducting large-scale “snap” military exercises with little or no advance warning near the South Caucasus and elsewhere. These surprise combat drills could facilitate the kind of surprise attack the CFE was designed to prevent. Russia held such a snap exercise to cover its military occupation of the Crimea in early 2014. Russia could use a snap exercise to occupy Tbilisi before any NATO counter-intervention force could rescue Georgia. Russia’s blitzkrieg potential in the South Caucasus aims to enhance Moscow’s leverage over all these governments.
CONCLUSIONS: The Russian government wants all European countries to negotiate a new conventional arms control treaty to replace the CFE accord. But negotiating and ratifying a new treaty could take decades given the many governments involved and the Russia-NATO differences on key issues. Western governments still want Russian troops to withdraw from foreign countries and insist on keeping an “Open Door Policy” to further membership enlargement. The Moscow-backed separatists in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and now Ukraine have many weapons that are limited by the CFE Treaty but not accountable to any state party, creating another problem for any arms control agreement. An interesting question is how long Turkey will continue to overlook Russian actions against Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and the CFE. Until now, Turkish diplomacy has downplayed these issues to avoid disrupting the important economic and energy relationship between Russia and Turkey.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Hudson Institute Center for Political-Military Analysis.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia commns & Scott Sutherland