Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE and Adapted CFE Treaty)

In principle, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) is still in force today. It sets ceilings on the number of heavy weapons systems that may be positioned on “the entire land territory of the States Parties in Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains” (Article II.1.B). The treaty arose in the context of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union during the final stage of the Cold War. Twenty-two member states of the two military alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact, came together in Paris on 19 November 1990 to sign the agreement, which finally entered into force on 9 November 1992. Its objective was to significantly reduce the immense weapons arsenals maintained on either side and to do so within a formally agreed time frame of forty months. Specifically, the Treaty required NATO and Warsaw Pact states to have in total no more than 40,000 battle tanks, 60,000 armoured combat vehicles, 40,000 pieces of artillery, 13,600 combat aircraft and 4,000 attack helicopters on the whole territory of the respective alliance. The CFE Treaty also provided for lower ceilings on military hardware in individual regions, including so-called flank ceilings designed to limit Russian stockpiles in the north and south of the treaty territory.

To reach these targets, the CFE states parties destroyed in subsequent years more than 50,000 weapons systems. These steps were supervised under a treaty compliance mechanism requiring information sharing and reciprocal inspections. Moreover, the scope of the treaty was soon widened to cover troop numbers. The 1992 follow-up agreement known as the CFE-1A arranged limits on the level of military personnel.

In 1996, the first conference to review the operation of the CFE Treaty was convened in Vienna. Although the members—now grown to 30 due to the break-up of the Soviet Union—reaffirmed the fundamental importance of an agreement on conventional arms control in Europe, the massive shifts in Europe’s security architecture clearly called for treaty adjustments. The Warsaw Pact had already broken up in 1991, a year before the CFE Treaty actually entered into force. And Russia had been fighting a war in North Caucasus since 1994 and was not sticking to the treaty provisions on regional weapons system limits for its southern flank. The Vienna conference was able to find a compromise on this question with a new “flank agreement”, but insurmountable problems arose when three former Warsaw Pact members—Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary—joined NATO in the late 1990s. The CFE Treaty in its 1990 version was out of date. In 1997, talks began on a revised treaty while, in a parallel move, the NATO–Russia Council was formed to improve cooperation between the two sides.

Meeting at the Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), CFE Treaty partners finally agreed, on 19 November 1999, on an updated and modified arrangement: the Adapted CFE Treaty. A major change was that limitations on conventional weapon systems were no longer aligned to two “blocs” but to the territorial borders of individual states. In addition, the Adapted CFE Treaty provided for a stronger regime of reciprocal inspection. However, the numbers set for the ceiling on weapons and troops were only slightly below the values agreed in 1990 and 1992 respectively, and the flank ceilings were, on Russia’s insistence, even raised.

Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan ratified the Adapted CFE Treaty in 2004. However, the NATO members then made their support dependent on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia and Moldova. This conditionality applied above all to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Transnistria, which lack international recognition. With Russia refusing to fulfil the OSCE “Istanbul commitments” (not as such covered by the Adapted CFE Treaty), the treaty never became effective.

In subsequent years, tensions between NATO and Russia then prevented any further attempt to agree a modified CFE Treaty. Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, who have been NATO members since 2004, did not even sign up to the treaty, much to Moscow’s annoyance. NATO justified this refusal by arguing that the original CFE Treaty did not contain an accession clause (such a clause would only have been created if the Adapted CFE Treaty came into force). The conflict with Russia intensified when the US administration, under George W. Bush, announced plans to station NATO missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. On 12 December 2007, President Vladimir Putin suspended Russian participation in the CFE Treaty, unilaterally declaring a moratorium. Russia presented a series of conditions for its return to the control regime, but no common ground has so far been found with NATO. In 2011, the NATO states suspended further disclosure of information to Russia.

Observers are therefore agreed that conventional arms control in Europe requires a thorough and fundamental overhaul—if not even a fresh start. With Slovenia and the Baltic states joining NATO, even the national restrictions later agreed under the Adapted CFE arrangement became out of date. Germany has been arguing for some time for the idea of replacing a system of territorial “ceilings” on weapons and troop levels with an arrangement for “verifiable transparency” in military affairs. But, in recent years, neither Russia nor the United States has shown much interest in reviving the conventional arms control process in Europe.

Sources and further information

BICC 11/2013

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