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How the best hope for avoiding a Russia crisis vanished without a trace

The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces between NATO and former Warsaw Pact countries was destroyed at our peril.

Analysis | Europe

In this frightening moment, Russian and Belarusian forces are poised on the border of Ukraine and speculation over a potential invasion pervades the headlines. The U.S. and its NATO allies are issuing flurries of statements and threats of sanctions while pouring weapons into Ukraine and bolstering forces in frontline states. 

Consequences of an invasion would include massive destruction and loss of life for civilians and combatants, coupled with severe damage to global economies struggling to emerge from the COVID pandemic. Given the possibilities for miscalculation and unintended escalation, a confrontation involving the globe’s largest nuclear powers cannot be dismissed. Even if the worst is avoided, a revival the Cold War standoff of hostile blocs bristling with weaponry is a real possibility.

This crisis might have been averted via a now-forgotten arms control mechanism: the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. CFE, as I have written previously, was a masterpiece of arms control. Born of Cold War fears of a massive Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe, the treaty addressed both the Warsaw Pact’s advantage in force numbers and NATO’s edge in sophisticated weaponry.

Negotiated as a bloc-to-bloc agreement between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the treaty limited key categories of equipment needed to mount large-scale attacks and established an aggressive inspection regime. CFE survived the collapse of the Pact and the emergence of successor states to the USSR, bringing most of them into the treaty’s structure while reducing weapons, providing extensive transparency regarding both holdings and military exercises, and establishing channels of communication.

However, NATO expansion upset key treaty provisions. Moscow pressed for revisions reflecting new realities, and treaty parties agreed in 1999 to an Adapted CFE, known as ACFE. NATO states, unfortunately, dragged their feet for years on ratifications by raising objections to some Russian military deployments (which Russia either withdrew or had authorized by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe), continuing to expand the alliance at a rapid rate, and gaining the advantage of loopholes in the original agreement to potentially station forces in the Baltic states much closer to the Russian border.

By 2007, Vladimir Putin had had enough, highlighting the "pitiable condition" of CFE in his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference. Despite direct, repeated warnings from Moscow over the next ten months, Washington and NATO states refused to entertain ratifying ACFE or seriously addressing Russian concerns. Putin then withdrew the Russian Federation from compliance with CFE in December 2007. The most substantial element of post-Cold War European security architecture — and the best hope for managing NATO expansion while acknowledging Russian interests — was thereby destroyed.

Unlike toothless institutions and paper declarations such as the NATO-Russia Council and the Founding Act, CFE was a legally-binding multilateral treaty. It ranked with the UN Security Council — itself blithely disregarded by NATO in its 78-day war against Yugoslavia in 1999 — as a means for Russia to both have a real voice and be bound by its agreed limits. But Putin seems to have overestimated its value to the West: the treaty sank without a trace.

Russia then embarked on a sustained and ferocious campaign of military modernization. With no trust remaining in the West’s good faith and no CFE inspections or constraints on deployments and equipment levels in effect, Putin was free to build up his forces and put them wherever he chose — currently on Ukraine’s border.

Unlike its nuclear counterparts, CFE has never been famous. Even thoughtful analyses of NATO expansion tend to overlook the significance of its demolition. But today’s menacing situation is precisely what CFE was designed to avert and to do so through established structures, not ad hoc meetings, pleas and threats.

CFE would have constrained all sides, serving as a brake on any war in Europe. In contrast to mere “confidence building” measures, such as the Vienna Document Ukraine is now desperately invoking, CFE was a treaty ratified by parliaments. Its preservation and further adaptation could have given crucial reassurance to Russia without precluding further NATO expansion or the security choices of any state. Its loss is a blunder, perhaps one of great consequence.

If the present crisis can somehow be defused, a CFE-like process would provide a way to negotiate the tough issues while respecting the sovereignty of all participating states. In a rare mention of CFE, a recent Quincy Institute working group noted that the ACFE could provide “a solid basis for mutual restraint in military deployments.” 

Much more could be possible. The CFE framework is flexible enough to incorporate new technologies, equipment categories and verification methods. Critically, all states party to the treaty would have a seat at the table, and both their territorial integrity and national interests would be acknowledged. Finally, a CFE-like process would channel conflict into sustained and serious diplomacy rather than literal battlefields.

But these are aspirations: all bets will be off if shooting starts.

CFE was credible arms control which also provided transparency and fostered communication. Its destruction was a blazingly clear signal that efforts to build an inclusive post-1991 European security system had failed. No one in the West cared much. The consequences of that tragic failure are playing out across the plains and marshes of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine today.

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