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Russia's suspension of the CFE Treaty: a matter of time

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Camille-Renaud Merlen argues that Russia’s de facto withdrawal from the CFE Treaty is symptomatic of the unravelling of the European security order created at the end of the Cold War. While some may see the move as further fallout from the current crisis, its underlying causes stem from long-held Russian grievances supposedly ignored by the West.



The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday that Russia would suspend its participation in the joint consultative group of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Force in Europe (CFE), thereby all but formally pulling out of the agreement. The application of the treaty had already been suspended by Russia in 2007, a move justified by Putin in view of 'exceptional circumstances that affect the security of the Russian federation'. Until now, however, Russia had continued work in the joint consultative group.

Signed in 1990 and generally referred to as a cornerstone of European security, the CFE Treaty imposed parity on NATO and the Warsaw Pact regarding the amount of conventional key arms such as tanks, artillery, and combat aircrafts, while also providing for mutual inspections. Through a reduction of forces, the treaty sought to prevent any large-scale surprise attacks, which in turn would diminish the likeliness of either military bloc resorting to nuclear weapons.

While the suspension of the treaty has been pitched as an attempt by the Kremlin to put pressure on the West, Russia has argued time and again that the treaty failed to take into account fundamental changes in circumstances since 1990.

As the director of the department for non-proliferation and arms control at the Russian Foreign Ministry explained on 11 March: 'I don’t think we will return to the CFE under any circumstances. It is absolutely out of sync with the present realities. It is totally anachronistic. This Treaty was worked out way back when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Treaty were still around and set equal ceilings for each bloc (NATO and the Warsaw Treaty) on key armaments. Under this Treaty, together with the East European countries, which are now NATO members, we are representatives of the same group, which politically is utter nonsense'. The official added that Russia was 'willing to consider the possibility and hold corresponding talks on a new agreement'.

Russia’s exasperation stems primarily from the continued reluctance of NATO members to ratify the Adapted CFE Treaty (1999), which was to replace bloc-by-bloc by national-territorial ceilings precisely in order to take into account NATO enlargements. Furthermore, the alliance members agreed to withhold their ratification of the adapted treaty until Russia fulfilled its ‘Istanbul commitments’ - the withdrawal of its military forces from the territory of Georgia and Moldova - in spite of the fact that this linkage does not appear in the text of the treaty itself.

As a result, for instance, the Baltic states have been barred from joining the CFE due to the fact that the revised treaty never entered into force. This logically means that they are exempt from its limitations. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the US Operation Atlantic Resolve, aimed at reinforcing the American military presence in Europe, has focused precisely on the territory of the Baltics. While commentators have dwelled upon the largely fictitious military build-up on the Russian side of the Ukrainian border, this considerable operation taking place right next to Russia has been completely ignored.

While it may be tempting to see Russia’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty as a consequence of the recent breakdown in relations over Ukraine, in reality its underlying causes are more profound and can be charted back to the 1990s -much like the current crisis itself. This period saw NATO expand into the territory of the former Warsaw Pact, a move some commentators argue has been at the root of Russian 'revanchism'. But while it is no secret that Russia has never been happy with the idea of NATO enlargement, it was rather the fact that these enlargements were not embedded in a corresponding security framework that, together with the unilateral turn in US foreign policy and its accompanying assault on the principles of international law, explains the current grievances of Russian policymakers against the West.

It also explains the considerable and consistent efforts of the Russian leadership put into renewing the dialogue on a new European security architecture. Perhaps the most ambitious proposal was put forward in 2009 by Medvedev. It foresaw the signing of a new European Security Treaty, which was to formalise the principle of indivisible security and create a 'common undivided space' 'from Vancouver to Vladivostok'. It was politely ignored by Western leaders, however.

Russia now stands accused of undermining a key confidence-building mechanism between Russia and the West. This hardly seems fair, given the fact that the CFE Treaty had long ceased to be such a source of trust for Moscow. Meanwhile, repeated failures to adapt the treaty to the new realities have convinced the Kremlin of the West's unwillingness to take what it sees as its legitimate security concerns seriously. The return of nuclear saber-rattling to Europe is therefore all the more tragic in its predictability. The reappearance of the 'asymmetric response'-doctrine is indeed a logical consequence of the current weakening of arms control regimes. It is telling of the distance travelled since the end of the Cold War and its main hopes, in particular regarding a world without the ubiquitous threat of a nuclear armageddon.

The CFE Treaty joins a list of international fora between Russia and the West that have been closed down recently. 


In January, Russia saw its voting rights in the Parliamentary Assemble of the Council of Europe suspended for the second year in a row, which prompted the Russian delegation to boycott the assembly’s sessions for the whole of 2015. Sergey Naryshkin, the speaker of the Duma, moreover stated that Russia would reconsider its membership of the Council of Europe. Moreover, co-operation with NATO has been suspended since April 2014, although channels for political dialogue at the highest levels are kept open. Likewise, the EU has frozen talks on a visa-free regime with Russia in March 2014. Even the OSCE, one of the last forums for dialogue between Russia and the West, has not been free of controversies: in February, its parliamentary assembly rejected the nomination of a Russian delegate representing Crimea.



Camille is a PhD Candidate in International Relations and an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Previously, he studied European Politics (MA), History (BA, cum laude), French (BA, cum laude), and Russian (undergraduate) at the University of Amsterdam, Sciences Po Paris, and Lomonosov Moscow State University. He completed internships at the Centre d’├ętudes et de recherches internationales (Paris) and the Political Affairs and Public Diplomacy section of the Dutch Embassy in France and worked at two leading Dutch publishing houses. His research focuses on Russian traditions of constitutionalism and Russia's engagement with international law.
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