Biden Proposes Moving Beyond the CFE Treaty

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 94

US Vice-President, Joseph Biden’s, landmark article (Biden Proposes New Tasks for the OSCE, EDM, May 14) also heralds new US proposals on conventional arms control in Europe. These would seek to improve military transparency through exchanges of military data and on-site visits. According to Biden, the US is also prepared to explore [presumably, on a NATO-Russia basis] reciprocal limitations on the size and locations of conventional forces in Europe. The goals should be relevant to the needs of “today and tomorrow, not yesterday.” The reconfiguration would primarily address unconventional, non-state types of threat to European security.

Biden’s published proposals omit any mention of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), of which the OSCE is the custodian organization. The dismissive reference to “yesterday” also seems to indicate giving up on the existing CFE Treaty, following Russia’s breaches and ultimate repudiation of it.

The United States and NATO used to describe this treaty as a “cornerstone of European security” in each and every relevant pronouncement until most recently. Russia, however, breached the treaty obligations on the southern flank for many years, suspended compliance with the treaty as such since 2008, and demands a wholesale re-negotiation of the arms-control regime in Europe.

Meanwhile, the unresolved conflicts in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region persist as inter-state, conventional military conflicts. Biden’s proposals only allude to those conflicts when urging the shift in priorities, “even if regional flashpoints remain.” This incidental sub-clause turns the page quickly on that problem.

However, conventional military challenges to security are on the increase in this region. Larger Russian forces are now stationed deep inside Georgia, and new naval challenges (beyond the CFE treaty’s scope) arise after the open-ended extension of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s basing in Ukraine.

Coinciding with his article’s publication, Biden visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, met with the EU’s top leaders, and gave a speech in the European Parliament on Euro-Atlantic security issues. The speech focused on global, rather than European issues, with no reference to the proposals aired in Biden’s newspaper article. His speech omitted the problem of conventional military challenges to security in Europe’s borderlands. However, the CFE treaty’s demise underscores the persistence and escalation of those challenges.

Biden sounded a ringing call for European support to US-led antiterrorism efforts, counter-proliferation, and distant expeditionary operations (White House press release, May 6). “Many European Parliament members stayed away from the speech, and applause was moderate-to-polite” reported one observer (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 7).

Surprisingly for many in this audience, Biden’s speech did not mention the defense of NATO territory under a new strategic concept, European energy policy, and Ukraine’s absorption into Russia’s reclaimed sphere of influence. These omissions are a significant common denominator of Biden’s article and his speech.

Both documents also reject in principle any reestablishment of spheres of influence in Europe. For stronger reassurance, Biden recalls that “the United States crossed the Atlantic twice in the last century in the defense of Europe.”

However, many Europeans would recall that the first ocean-crossing was followed by relative disengagement of the US from Europe (“isolation”) for 20 years, and the second crossing was followed by the division of Europe for almost half a century. To be sure, a partition model based on military demarcation lines, percentage agreements, and other explicit concessions and trade-offs, is an unrepeatable model in Europe at present. However, US and NATO de-prioritization and disengagement from Europe’s eastern neighborhood are creating a security vacuum, facilitating Russian sphere-of-influence building.

This development can be observed in two forms thus far. One is de facto partition of Moldova and, more recently, Georgia into Russian-occupied and Western-oriented areas (a pattern somewhat reminiscent of Germany 1945-90). The other form is “reintegration” of Ukraine as a whole into Russia’s economic, security, and information spaces –a process rapidly advancing at the moment. The United States, NATO, the European Union, and OSCE are all watching this process, seemingly without objection thus far.

Biden could not proceed as planned to attend the May 9 victory celebrations in Moscow. The Russian side wanted the US president there and rejected a visit by the vice-president as inadequate. Moscow’s snub reflects its perception that the United States and NATO in their current predicaments need Russia, far more than vice-versa. US President, Barack Obama, quickly responded by inviting Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, to visit the United States in June (Interfax, May 7).