Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 202

Since December 2007, Russia has officially “suspended its compliance” with the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE, signed in 1990 and adapted in 1999). The “suspension” has dealt the coup de grace to a treaty that Russia was already breaching on multiple counts for many years.

Emboldened by Western complacency toward those violations, Moscow hopes that the suspension would pressure NATO and the alliance’s partners in Europe’s East to: ratify the 1999-adapted treaty; accept Russia’s ongoing breaches of it, removing those issues from the agenda; and start negotiations to constrain possible future deployments of NATO countries’ forces on the territories of the three Baltic states (which were not signatories to the original CFE treaty). Apart from ratification (with its built-in political mechanism to trigger negotiations on the Baltic states), Moscow seeks to rewrite the treaty’s core by eliminating limitations on Russian force deployments on the northern and southern flanks of the treaty’s area of application.

If Russia’s suspension (capping the long-time violations) practically killed the CFE treaty, Russia’s invasion of Georgia and occupation of its territories can be said to have buried this treaty. Any future renegotiation may conceivably lead over time to some new regime of conventional arms control in Europe, but the existing treaty has been destroyed and a large part of its wreckage is on view in Georgia. The invading Russian forces had been based near the border for years, massively breaching the CFE treaty ceilings, with international tolerance and even informal consent.

The process of eviscerating the treaty is about as old as the 1999-adapted treaty itself. During the Chechen conflict in the 1990s, Russia was granted a temporary exemption from CFE treaty restrictions in the North Caucasus. The Russians concentrated massive conventional forces there, ostensibly to fight against “international terrorism.” That rationale (if it ever had any merit) became unsustainable after a few years; but the overwhelming force remained, particularly in the form of the 58th Army stationed in North Ossetia. That became the strike force of the August invasion in Georgia and current occupation of that country’s territories.

Periodic CFE treaty review conferences in the framework of the OSCE ignored the accumulation of Russia’s offensive potential in the North Caucasus and the resulting threats to South Caucasus countries. NATO and the United States shied away from this problem. Ultimately, international failure to implement the CFE treaty made the invasion of Georgia a practicable option for Russia.

Russian forces are now settling in for permanent basing in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russian government no longer bothers to seek justification for these new breaches of the CFE treaty. From the president on down, Russian officials argue that these new forward deployments are a bilateral matter for Russia with South Ossetia and with Abkhazia, following Russia’s “recognition” of these “independent states.” According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, Russia is preparing mutual assistance treaties and basing agreements for signing with the Sokhumi and Tskhinvali authorities (Interfax, October 10, 20).

Russia’s General Staff is currently determining the level of heavy armaments to be stationed at these bases. Some 3,700 troops are earmarked to be stationed in South Ossetia and another 3,700 in Abkhazia. The bases are slated to become fully operational in 2009, according to the Russian General Staff’s Chief, General Nikolai Makarov (Interfax, October 21).

Abkhaz “foreign minister” Sergei Shamba has confirmed the assumption that Russia will use the Gudauta base as its main base in Abkhazia. In addition, the Russians will use the ex-Soviet naval base at Ochamchire. The Russians will upgrade both bases. (Itar-Tass, October 17; Interfax, October 21). Beyond their local value, Russia will use these bases as strategic assets: Ochamchire for its deep-water naval port inside a protected bay and Gudauta for its prized airfield, capable of handling strategic aircraft. Russian officials make no reference to the CFE treaty, flank restrictions on troops, or ceilings on the heavy weaponry in their comments.

The issue of Gudauta seems especially poignant in this regard. Within the 1999 CFE treaty package, Russia was obligated to quit that base by July 2001. But Russia continued to garrison Gudauta, albeit with a small unit (falsely claiming to have closed the base), blocked CFE treaty-mandated inspections at Gudauta, and attempted to use it for Russian “peacekeepers” in Abkhazia. Some West European diplomats, with Germans in the lead, tried for years to arrange a face-saving solution whereby Russia would keep Gudauta without being declared in breach of the CFE treaty. This would have removed an obstacle to ratification of the treaty, which Moscow was actively seeking; and it would have doubly pleased Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which valued Russia’s “peacekeeping” presence in Georgia and Moldova and sought its continuation in both places during OSCE conferences in recent years.

Beyond Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the CFE treaty had long become inoperable in Transnistria and, particularly, in the Armenian-controlled territories of Azerbaijan. In all these places, occupying forces concentrated large arsenals of heavy weaponry, breaching the treaty’s ceilings and the treaty-mandated verification procedures. The four territories have all along remained inaccessible to international inspection in that regard. The OSCE (custodian of the CFE treaty) and a growing number of West European governments within NATO resigned themselves to this situation. They designated those arsenals as “unaccounted-for treaty-limited equipment” (UTLE) and practically removed this issue from discussions with Russia about ratification of the treaty.

Russia may well seek to resume discussions about ratification of the CFE treaty, and conditions for ratification at the OSCE’s year-end ministerial conference. Such proposals would not find many takers in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, an event made possible in part by Western failure to implement the CFE treaty during the past ten years.