NATO Shelves Cold War-Era Treaty Limiting Military Buildup In Europe After Russia Withdraws – Analysis

From Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty earlier this year, the United States and its NATO counterparts opted to rescind their involvement in the treaty. The principal political decision-making body of the alliance, the North Atlantic Council, officially conveyed this decision on November 7. It articulated that, effective December 7; the alliance would “suspend the operation of their obligations to the treaty.” This course of action was prompted by Russia’s earlier pronouncement on the same day, confirming the completion of its withdrawal process initiated on June 29, 2023. Preceding this, Moscow had already ceased its active participation in the Joint Consultative Group’s weekly meetings pertaining to treaty implementation on two occasions—December 12, 2007, and March 11, 2015. Following Russia’s formal announcement in May 2023 of its decision to exit the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), citing objections to NATO nations allegedly contributing to the conflict in Ukraine and expressing openness to the inclusion of Finland and Sweden as new members, subsequent developments underscored the geopolitical ramifications. The aforementioned decision to withdraw from NATO did not effectuate alterations in Russia’s military posture. Russia, in its official communication, asserted the nullification of the 1990 Budapest accord on conventional armaments holdings and the 1996 CFE-1A pact as integral components of its treaty withdrawal. The territorial deployment of Russian forces in border regions with Europe to both the north and south had been circumscribed by the stipulations of these accords. Moscow contended that the inflexibility of the treaty in accommodating modifications to the delineation of blocs (east and west) and its failure to accommodate new members, including the Baltic states, were key grievances. Despite the amendment of the CFE in 1997, the NATO countries refrained from ratifying the revised version, persisting instead with the outdated 1990 provisions rooted in the conventional arms balance between NATO and the erstwhile Warsaw Pact. This protracted discord prompted Russia to declare a moratorium on the implementation of the treaty’s terms in 2007. The culmination of these events signifies a pivotal juncture in the geopolitical landscape, with Russia’s withdrawal from both NATO and key arms control agreements reshaping the dynamics of Euro-Atlantic security. Notwithstanding the evolution of geopolitical realities, particularly the integration of the majority of the erstwhile Eastern Bloc nations into NATO, Moscow underscored a fundamental constraint of the treaty—its incapacity to accommodate alterations to the predefined delineation of blocs (east and west), with countries being designated and fixed. The Comprehensive Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty underwent an amendment in 1997, seeking to address contemporary geopolitical dynamics. Regrettably, the NATO member states refrained from endorsing the revised iteration of the treaty, choosing instead to adhere steadfastly to the antiquated provisions established in 1990, grounded in the conventional arms equilibrium between NATO and the defunct Warsaw Pact. This sustained incongruity in the interpretation and application of the treaty compelled Russia to declare a moratorium on its implementation in 2007, signaling a protracted period of discord and highlighting the persistent challenges in achieving consensus on arms control frameworks within the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.
Following the suspension of treaty implementation with Russia on November 22, 2011, by the 22 NATO signatories—comprising Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States—a distinct delineation in the application of treaties emerged. Despite the suspension with Russia, these NATO members continued to honor treaties with seven other parties: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine. The prevailing perspective among the majority of allies posited that Belarus was facilitating Russia’s access to information acquired under the treaty, thereby mitigating the perceived significance of the suspension with Russia. This nuanced approach in treaty enforcement underscores the complex dynamics and strategic considerations that influenced the divergent treatment of signatory states within the NATO alliance. The United States State Department, articulating its rationale, released a statement asserting that the decision not to perpetuate adherence to a treaty from which Russia had disengaged was a strategic imperative. The suspension of obligations under the Comprehensive Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty was deemed essential to fortify the alliance’s deterrence and defense capabilities. This strategic recalibration is anticipated to alleviate constraints on planning, deployment, and exercises, thus fostering a more agile and responsive security posture. The 1990 agreement, widely regarded as a cornerstone of European security, instituted equitable limitations on the deployment of conventional weapons for both NATO and Warsaw Pact nations. Its implementation resulted in the dismantling of over 72,000 components of NATO and Soviet military equipment, thereby mitigating the Soviet Union’s erstwhile quantitative dominance in conventional weaponry across Europe. The suspension of CFE Treaty obligations is emblematic of the evolving dynamics in Euro-Atlantic security architecture, signaling a departure from established norms in response to contemporary geopolitical realities. Amidst Russia’s complete withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and NATO’s subsequent decision to cease participation in the agreement, the meticulously constructed and decades-long conventional arms control system in Europe stands on the precipice of collapse. The ramifications of this decision are multifaceted, as the cessation of implementation by NATO allies entails a comprehensive discontinuation of key activities: The annual exchange of military data, encompassing organizational details and geolocation of military forces from the defense ministry down to individual battalions, along with unit-specific possession of battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters. The issuance of alerts regarding significant military deployments within, out of, or into the treaty’s applicable zone. First, The submission or approval of requests for inspections. Second the Participation in Joint Consultative Group meetings in Vienna. Despite the withdrawal from the CFE Treaty, NATO allies underscore their unwavering commitment to effective conventional weapons control, considering its paramount importance in maintaining Euro-Atlantic security. This commitment extends beyond individual ally security to encompass the broader security of the alliance, thereby fortifying the collective defense and deterrent posture. Allies affirm their intention to continue discussing and evaluating the implications of the evolving security landscape on their strategy and alliance security. NATO serves as a pivotal forum for close interaction and in-depth deliberation on weapons control initiatives among allies. The decision to discontinue participation in the CFE Treaty is part of a broader trend of unraveling arms control agreements between the United States and Russia. Recent actions include President Putin’s revocation of Russia’s approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the withdrawal from the New START Treaty, the last remaining arms control agreement between the two nations. Against the backdrop of heightened tensions over Ukraine, both countries withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, accusing each other of violations. These developments underscore the complex interplay of geopolitics and arms control, shaping the contemporary security landscape in the Euro-Atlantic region. The NATO allies’ decision to suspend their treaty commitments holds implications for Euro-Atlantic security that require further examination. From a practical standpoint, the suspension will eliminate constraints and notification procedures that US Army Europe and Africa have consistently opposed regarding the entry of partner forces into Romania and Bulgaria. In the political realm, this development marks the closure of another chapter in the dwindling portfolio of open arms control accords within the Euro-Atlantic region. The statement released by Russia on November 7 emphasizes the futility of clinging to outdated agreements that fail to align with the evolving geopolitical landscape. As this pressure mounts and casts uncertainty on the continued viability of the Vienna Declaration, questions arise about the future of arms control in the region, signaling a potential shift towards a post-arms control era. The suspension of treaty commitments by NATO countries necessitates a scholarly exploration of future developments in the domain of arms control agreements. Given the evolving geopolitical landscape, there is a compelling need to critically assess existing treaties and contemplate the prospect of novel agreements that can more effectively address contemporary security challenges. The discontinuation of certain arms control measures prompts an intensified examination and discourse concerning the viability of other agreements, including the Vienna Document. This underscores the imperative to anticipate broader implications for regional and international security and engage in substantive dialogues aimed at formulating a future arms control architecture that is both adaptive and efficacious. About the authors:
  •  Dr Abida Rafique, Research Officer, CISS AJK,
  •  Nazia Sheikh, Research Officer, CISS AJK, nsheikh536@gmail.coom

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