In the run-up to the NATO summit in Istanbul (June 28-29), Russian President Vladimir Putin is signalling that he might honor the event with his presence “[if] the conditions will be right” (NATO press release, May 17). Putin’s conditions apparently include NATO acceptance of Russia’s breaches to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and associated commitments on the southern flank, and — those breaches notwithstanding — an allied move to ratify that same treaty and to place the three Baltic states under its restrictions.
The 1999-adapted CFE and the Istanbul Commitments are twin parts of the package approved at the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Istanbul summit. They required Russia to: liquidate or remove heavy weaponry (treaty-limited equipment–TLE) from the South Caucasus and Moldova; close two bases (out of four) in Georgia in 2001; negotiate with Georgia the timeframe for closing the other two bases, and completely remove Russian
forces from Moldova by 2002.
Nevertheless, Russia retains three bases in Georgia (Gudauta, Batumi, Akhalkalaki), and has avoided any serious negotiations on the matter in the last two years. Instead, it advances demands that imply a long-term hold on those bases. It also retains in Moldova the troops that were to be withdraw, and has transferred some of those troops into Trans-Dniester’s army. Residual amounts of Russia’s heavy weaponry (designated as “unaccounted-for TLE”) have been handed over to the illegal forces of Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The host countries’ consent, required by the CFE Treaty (no stationing of foreign forces without freely-given consent), is deemed unnecessary by Moscow. Meanwhile, Armenian forces deploy their Russian-supplied, unaccounted-for TLE within Azerbaijan’s territory beyond Karabakh. Throughout the region, Russia’s forces and the forces of unrecognized “statelets” are out of bounds to verification.
The U.S., NATO and their partners always conditioned the ratification of the CFE Treaty on Russia’s compliance with its Istanbul Commitments to withdraw forces from Moldova and Georgia. At the same time, NATO and the U.S. assured Moscow that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (territories not covered by the adapted CFE Treaty) would accede to that treaty, once they joined NATO and once the treaty was ratified. Therein lies a major incentive for Russia to fulfill its Istanbul Commitments on the southern flank in return for limitations on allied forces in the Baltics. Moscow would like to use the adapted CFE Treaty as a tool to constrain allied defensive deployments in the Baltic states and otherwise gain a voice in allied decisions on force levels on that flank.
However, at the same time Moscow wants to keep its bases and troops in Georgia and Moldova. Russia rejects the linkage between ratification of the CFE Treaty and fulfillment of the Istanbul Commitments. Russia disputes the notion that its base-closure and troop-withdrawal pledges constitute “commitments.” It merely acknowledges “intentions,” and attaches extraneous preconditions to fulfilling those intentions. Moreover, it seeks an open-ended military presence in Georgia and Moldova on such excuses as “peacekeeping,” “guaranteeing stability,” job-creation for local residents, secessionist authorities’ objections to troop withdrawal, and lack of accommodation in Russia for withdrawn troops. Russia has implicitly put forward these positions since 2000, and in explicit and systematic form since 2003 — causing the OSCE’s 2002 Porto and 2003 Maastricht conferences to fail ignominiously.
Russia seeks inclusion of the Baltic states in the treaty’s ratification, despite ongoing Russian breaches of the same treaty’s stipulations on the southern flank (verification loopholes, lack of host-country-consent) and despite the non-compliance with the Istanbul Commitments. Moscow wants NATO to: give up the linkage between ratification of the CFE Treaty and fulfillment of the Istanbul Commitments; accept Russian promises to meet some of those outstanding commitments in several years’ time, in lieu of actual fulfillment; and to recognize certain Russian units in Trans-Dniester and Abkhazia as “peacekeepers,” no longer requiring their withdrawal. On that basis, Moscow wants NATO -or some member governments collectively — to initiate ratification of the CFE Treaty and the accession of the Baltic states to the treaty. Several governments, guided by short-term political considerations, such as demonstrating “successes” in their relations with Russia post-Iraq, have signalled an inclination to go along with such a scenario.
On the merits of this issue, ratification of the treaty is clearly premature at this stage. Nor must the linkage between treaty’s ratification and the commitments’ fulfillment be weakened any further. If ratification is de-linked and proceeds under existing circumstances, NATO would forfeit this significant lever for inducing Russia to withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova. Moves afoot by certain West European governments to “initiate ratification procedures” would break that linkage, sacrifice allied strategic interests on the southern flank, and unnecessarily complicate defense and security issues on the Baltic flank. The Baltic states understandably caution against a “premature ratification” of the CFE Treaty.
NATO’s upcoming summit should make clear that the adapted CFE Treaty will not be ratified until Russia honors the treaty’s spirit and the letter of the 1999 Istanbul Commitments.