The Future of the CFE Treaty

Policy Report | July 09, 2009

This paper by Jeffrey D. McCausland argues for a negotiated compromise to avoid the collapse of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the current European security architecture.

Executive Summary

The future of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, widely considered to be the cornerstone of European security, was thrown into stark question when the Russian Federation announced in December 2007 that it would suspend its participation in the treaty. The 1990 treaty, considered the most ambitious and far ranging conventional arms control treaty in history, established limits on the numbers of conventional military hardware deployed in Europe, required substantial reductions in conventional arsenals, and created an intrusive regime of inspections and verification. In many ways, the treaty changed the face of European security by establishing new, cooperative political-military relationships.

It is critically important that a negotiated compromise is found that avoids the collapse of this “cornerstone,” which would have dramatic consequences for European security. The status quo is not sustainable. If Russia continues its suspension and efforts to resolve the issues that precipitated the Russian withdrawal remain deadlocked, the treaty will, over time, collapse. This would change the face of European security — and not for the better. There appear to be only three possibilities — and no easy way to reach critical political will on any of them:

First, Russia returns to the existing treaty regime and subsequently removes its forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as agreed by the Russian Federation originally at the signing of the adapted treaty in Istanbul and demanded by the states that have thus far refused to ratify the treaty.

Second, NATO agrees to address Russian CFE demands and ratifies the adapted treaty despite the continue presence of Russian forces in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Moldova.
Third, negotiators take the framework endorsed by NATO in the form of the parallel actions package and work the details. In this package, NATO has shifted its position on ratification, suggesting that countries can move forward with the ratification process in parallel with final resolution and implementation of the Istanbul commitments, as well as movement on other aspects of a package.

In all scenarios above, progress in the disputes in the Caucasus will make it easier to reach a better outcome with regards to the CFE. Furthermore, all parties would benefit from intensive negotiations to resolve the underlying disagreements between Russia and its North Caucasus neighbors in a fashion that allows the adapted treaty to be ratified.

There is, of course, a fourth possibility: maintenance of the status quo. In this scenario, the treaty over time will collapse, and with it the strong cooperative basis of the current Euro-Atlantic security architecture. Other states parties are unlikely to continue to implement a treaty in the face of Russia’s prolonged unilateral suspension.

A number of the core Russian concerns can best be addressed not by abandoning CFE but the opposite—through entry into force of the adapted treaty. The adapted treaty provides the means through which Russia can ensure predictability in the levels and locations of NATO forces, as well as a means of inspecting these forces against the information that NATO provides. Still, it is unclear whether all of the Russian concerns can be resolved within the context of the CFE treaty. Moscow has also recommended a new pan-European security agreement. Consequently, it would seem more likely that resolution of the disagreement over the CFE treaty might be a valuable precursor that would allow for serious negotiations on a number of European security issues to occur.