Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 139

At first, it seemed that the “lobster summit” in Maine between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month had reversed the ever-widening Russo-Western fray. The two presidents announced further consultations on outstanding issues including missile defense, and they approved an agreement on nuclear energy cooperation. Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute of the USA and Canada in Moscow and a long-time adviser to the Kremlin and Russian military on U.S.-Russo policy issues, expressed his optimism that “a slide into a Cold War confrontation has been averted” (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, July 13).

However, the detente lasted only two weeks. Last Saturday, July 14, Putin signed a decree to “suspend” Russian participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty of 1990 that regulates the number of warplanes, helicopters, tanks, heavy guns, and armored vehicles that can be deployed in Europe (RIA-Novosti, July 14). Putin had already announced a “moratorium” on Russia’s implementation of CFE in April. However, the CFE does not allow any temporary suspensions, so a “moratorium” would have been illegal (see EDM, July 11). After more than two months of interdepartmental deliberation a decision was reached in Moscow to effectively withdraw from CFE by exercising the national sovereignty clause in the CFE’s Article 19, which allows any state to cease participation after notice is given at least 150 days prior to the intended withdrawal.

Of course, officially Moscow has announced a “suspension” of CFE, not a withdrawal. Still the Russian Foreign Ministry has announced that after the 150 days, beginning July 14, Moscow will not be bound by any limits on conventional forces, will not provide notification on troop movements, or accept on-site inspection as provided by CFE, which in effect seems to be a de facto withdrawal (RIA-Novosti, July 14).

To make Russia’s withdrawal legally perfect, Moscow, as required by Article 19, published a list of “extraordinary events” that had caused the “suspension.” In sum, the inventory does not seem to be extremely serious. The main grievance is the NATO members’ failure to ratify the adapted version of CFE. U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic are not mentioned (RIA-Novosti, July 14). Under the CFE if one state declares its intention to withdraw, a special conference of all State-Parties must be called in 21 days. Many Western observers believe that such a conference or other consultations might produce a solution to salvage CFE.

However, an Extraordinary Conference of the State-Parties to CFE was already held on June 11-15 in Vienna at Russia’s request and ended in nothing. Russia has refused to fully withdraw its forces from Moldova and Georgia under the Istanbul commitments of 1999 and, in return, the West refuses to ratify the adapted CFE (see EDM, July 11). The Russian troops in the Transnistria part of Moldova and in Georgia are small in size, but for the Kremlin this is a point of principle. The Commonwealth of Independent States members are seen as being in Moscow’s sphere of influence, and the West must not intrude on where Russia keeps Russian soldiers or when Russia withdraws them.

It will be difficult — if not impossible — to find a compromise between Russia and the West before the 150 days expire. But Western states, including the new NATO members that border Russia, have been expressing confidence that the suspension of CFE would not in itself cause a major rift that will start a new Cold War or that Russia is planning to build up conventional forces in Europe facilitating an arms race. There will surely be more mutual suspicion as the CFE transparency mechanisms fail, but is that a Cold War?

The Russian Foreign Ministry has announced that after the CFE limits are no longer applicable, “The actual number of Russian armaments will depend on the evolution of the military-political situation” (RIA-Novosti, July 14). The statement is ambiguous, but has been seen in the West as reassuring. The problem is that Russian diplomats do not command troops and are almost never notified in time or in detail by those who do. It is much cheaper to maintain heavy weapons and troops in European Russia than east of the Urals in Siberia and the Far East, where the population is scarce and basic infrastructure almost nonexistent. China is a friend today, while the West is the main enemy. After the end of the 150 days, a substantial movement of troops and heavy weapons may begin into European Russia. It could save money and at the same time send the West a powerful message: Russia is back and strong. This clearly is a win-win situation.

The CFE is not the only question that plagues Russia’s relations with the West. There is the U.S. missile defense in Europe issue; Russia’s threat to use a veto in the UN Security Council to stop Kosovo independence; Russia’s arms sales to Syria and Iran; the Iranian nuclear issue; and the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko in London last year, which has now developed into a full diplomatic fray with Britain (RIA-Novosti, July 16, 17). Any one of these problems will not herald a new Cold War, but together they may add up to a confrontation that resembles those chilly days.