Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 186

Delegations from 30 countries signatory to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) held an emergency brainstorming session on October 1-2 near Berlin amid Russian threats to abandon the treaty imminently. Discussions are continuing in Vienna. With NATO unity less than ironclad on how to preserve the treaty, the issue will be taken up bilaterally at a meeting of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense with Russia’s ministers of foreign affairs and defense in the coming days.

Russia is temporarily suspending its compliance with key terms of the treaty and has announced its intention to break out of the CFE treaty entirely, unless all signatory countries ratify the 1999-adapted treaty and bring it into force within the next few months.

The treaty has not been ratified until now because of Russia’s noncompliance with the 1999 Istanbul commitments – as part of the treaty package – to withdraw its troops from Moldova and close three Russian bases in Georgia. The Russian military deploys an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 troops in Moldova’s Transnistria; is currently evacuating the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases in Georgia; and retains the third base, Gudauta, with a Russian garrison of several hundred in nominally Abkhaz-controlled territory. Russia insists on retaining its troops in Moldova as well as the Gudauta base and to rush the treaty’s ratification regardless. In that event, the three Baltic states – which are not signatories to the treaty – would have to accede to it. This would enable Russia to negotiate with the Baltic states and their NATO allies about placing limits on forces that might be stationed on the Baltic states’ territories.

Thus, the treaty’s ratification under present conditions could result in significant, unilateral Russian gains on both flanks. On the other hand, some Western officials feel that failure to ratify could lead to still worse consequences, removing the limits on Russian forces on the northern and southern flanks, thus potentially allowing Russia to augment its forces there. Adding their own perspective, German officials seem anxious to preserve the treaty for the sake of political relations with Russia.

As was acknowledged at the June emergency conference in Vienna (see EDM, June 8, 11, 13, 14, 18), the issue of Russian troops in Moldova is the single largest obstacle to the CFE treaty’s ratification. Russia wants to place on NATO and Moldova the onus of removing this Russian-made obstacle. To circumvent it, the United States proposed at the Vienna conference allowing some Russian troops to remain in Moldova and transforming the existing Russian “peacekeeping” operation into an international operation. This U.S. proposal also aimed to maintain allied unity and keep Germany on board.

At present, the U.S. State Department proposes a plan dubbed “Action for Action” and partly based on its Vienna proposal. The new plan would kick-start a rapid process of ratification by all NATO countries and bring the treaty into force until summer 2008. The twin goals declared in the title are, “Achieving CFE [Treaty] Ratification and Fulfilling the Istanbul Commitments.”

The document describes a final outcome that would see “withdrawal of Russian forces from, and formal transfer of, the Gudauta base to Georgia, with appropriate verification; OR [Russia] agreed another arrangement with Georgia” — by December 31, 2007.” Further along, “Russia completes withdrawal of all Russian forces [from] Moldova OR participates in a smaller, transformed peacekeeping presence under OSCE (or conceivably other multinational) mandate” — by February 15, 2008.

Russian actions along those lines would be matched by Western actions toward ratifying the treaty, in a quick step-by-step process under stringent interim deadlines. Those interim deadlines would be: November 29/30 and December 6/7, politically timed to the OSCE’s year-end ministerial conference and NATO’s year-end ministerial, respectively; February 15, 2008, spring 2008, and finally summer 2008 for the treaty’s entry into force.

In what seems to be an unprecedented link to domestic politics, the U.S. proposal sets the timetable explicitly “to take account of parliamentary calendars in a number of nations, including the United States.”

The proposal entails significant opportunity and equally significant risks. The desired outcomes in Moldova and Georgia would, if attained, substantially improve the situation on the ground in Transnistria and at Gudauta from a Western, Moldovan, and Georgian standpoint. Presumably, Russia would consent to such changes as a small price for the larger, long-sought overall gain of bringing the CFE treaty into force.

However, three apparent weaknesses in the proposal could produce a result opposite to that intended.

The first weakness concerns negotiating tactics. The proposal explicitly announces retreats from CFE/Istanbul terms from the very start. Instead of sticking to the goal of closing the Gudauta base, it states in the same breath that a bilateral Russian-Georgian arrangement would be acceptable, without reference to its terms. However, one can hardly expect Russia to negotiate with Georgia fairly or to resolve this issue at all in such a bilateral setting.

On the larger troop issue, the proposal would legitimize a residual Russian military presence in Moldova without any reference to the structure or duration of the putative international presence.

The second weakness concerns the issue of mandate. Entrusting the mandate to the OSCE would enable Russia to manipulate any mandate in its own interest, considering Russia’s track record of playing cat and mouse with the OSCE. Following the organization’s dismal performance in Georgia on the Border Monitoring Mission and on South Ossetia observation — both operations emasculated by Russia acting fully within OSCE rules — the idea of placing Moldova under an OSCE dispensation seems incomprehensible.

The third weakness consists of inadvertently generating pressure on the West (not to mention Moldova and Georgia) by linking the outcome and timeline with unspecified Western election calendars. This unclear reference may be read by Moscow as a euphemism for the U.S. presidential campaign and some event possibly desired that summer. If the Western side signals that it is in a hurry for closure by a certain date, for considerations no longer or not necessarily linked to the arms control issue at hand, Russia will simply run the calendar and hold out for terms favorable to itself alone.

(“CFE: A Timeline for Achieving Adapted CFE Ratification and Fulfilling the Istanbul Commitments,” October 2007)