Remember the CFE Treaty?

The conventional arms control treaty that helped resolve the Cold War might be a good framework for the Ukraine crisis.

“We think this is a darn good treaty” —James A. Baker III, Secretary of State, July 11, 1991

Thousands of Russian armed forces line up along Ukraine’s border as President Putin declares an obligation to defend Russian citizens. Kiev vows to respond, mobilizing its own army and digging trenches. President Obama warns Putin a “diplomatic path . . . remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops.” The Pentagon cancels Congressional testimony by NATO’s Supreme Commander, sending him back to Europe due to the “lack of transparency” in Russia’s actions.

The 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), now moribund, was designed to avert precisely this scenario: intimidating mobilizations and potential tank battles on the plains of Europe. If CFE had not been discarded—by Russia with help from NATO—Russia’s deployments would have been notified in detail to treaty partners including Ukraine and NATO states, all of which would have been able to inspect the purported exercises. Urgent talks could have been held under a CFE rubric, with Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors included, and could have provided the elusive “off-ramp” to deescalate the crisis. Without CFE, Russia is free to engage in aggressive deployments and cat-and-mouse withdrawals and redeployments with no transparency or accountability.

CFE was a triumph of arms control. Negotiated in the 1980s between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, CFE limited five key categories of equipment modern armies need to mount attacks: tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft and helicopters. Both blocs got something important. NATO pushed for major reductions in the Warsaw Pact’s huge (though aging) forces but offered its own limits, including on sophisticated U.S. capabilities.

The treaty required high levels of transparency: parties were obligated to exchange data on equipment levels, accept short-notice inspections and notify treaty partners of military exercises. These “trust but verify” provisions reduced chances for the surprise attack both sides feared and deterred the use of aggressive mobilizations in sensitive border regions.

Although negotiated during the 1980s, Secretary of State James Baker and his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, used CFE to help end the Cold War. Treaty limits on German forces made reunification more acceptable to Russia, and CFE’s ceiling on NATO forces—coupled with Moscow’s belief that NATO had no plan to expand—calmed Russian fears of the Alliance.

Over seventy thousand pieces of military equipment were destroyed. The rigorous inspection system built confidence among the thirty treaty parties, and data exchanges made gathering accurate intelligence a far easier task, reducing the risk of misunderstandings and unpredictable escalations. The 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, used a process based on CFE to ensure transparent withdrawal of the warring armies and subsequent equipment reductions. As a central element of post–Cold War European security architecture, CFE was praised as the ‘cornerstone’ so often that the term became a catchphrase among treaty experts.

Nonetheless, strains appeared as NATO expansion made the treaty’s bloc-to-bloc quotas increasingly irrelevant and, in Moscow’s view, unfair. At a 1999 summit, CFE states agreed on an Adapted CFE treaty (A/CFE) but NATO members conditioned ratification on Russian compliance with a newly devised set of demands. Over the next several years, Russia fulfilled most of these, and argued that the remaining sticking point—a 1,500-troop deployment in Moldova—was approved by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and secured dangerous arms depots.

NATO states stiff-armed Russia, refusing to take any steps toward ratifying the A/CFE while simultaneously proclaiming an “open door” enlargement policy. Washington’s plans for missile defense sprouted and grew as did new U.S. bases in Romania and Bulgaria. Western leaders spoke fervently of expanding the “frontiers of freedom” eastward into Eurasia. Disputes over Kosovo’s future and Western support for ‘color revolutions’ further poisoned the atmosphere.

By February 2007, Vladimir Putin had had enough. In a bitter speech at the Munich Security Conference, Russia’s president denounced CFE’s “pitiable condition” and the bad faith of NATO states’ refusal to ratify A/CFE even as NATO itself grew in both territory and capabilities.

Two months later Russia announced a plan to suspend CFE compliance but the West offered no serious response. On December 12, 2007 Moscow acted, announcing its withdrawal from CFE’s crucial data sharing and inspection functions and from restrictions on the number of weapons and where they could be deployed. The U.S. pronounced the move regrettable and appointed an envoy—Victoria Nuland—to try to patch up the treaty. Neither side conceded key points, and in 2011 NATO states stopped CFE engagement with Russia.

“A darn good treaty” was reduced to rubble.

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