Good riddance to the CFE Treaty

President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia intends to declare a moratorium on observing its obligations under the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty comes as welcome news. This treaty has been used regularly for Cold War purposes, mostly against Russia’s interests.

President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia intends to declare a moratorium on observing its obligations under the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty comes as welcome news.

Russia will stop complying with a treaty which has been rendered pointless, many times over, by the changes in Europe since it was signed in 1990. We can only wonder at our own weakness or infirmity in previous years, when we continued to observe this treaty. We even allowed it to be used for making demands from us – when it had already turned into a caricature of itself.

The treaty signed in 1990 established approximately equal forces for each side, limited their movements, and called for their reduction. But the system of military and political confrontation imposed on Europe by the ideological divide and two superpowers had started to crumble in 1989. In 1991, the Cold War system collapsed. But the CFE Treaty remained. And since it carried a genetic memory of the Cold War, it has been used regularly for Cold War purposes, mostly against Russia’s interests.

The CFE Treaty was harmful right from the start. The process of developing and negotiating it, over many years, produced an intellectual bastard child: the concept of a balance of forces (parity) in Europe. Based on this concept, the West argued (not without success) that the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had a superiority of forces, so reductions and limitations should primarily apply to the East.

The Soviet Union did indeed have more armed forces and armaments. In its number of tanks alone, most of which were deployed in Europe, it exceeded the rest of the world’s combined number of tanks. The Soviet Union’s numerical superiority was also used by NATO to justify keeping dangerous and unnecessary nuclear weapons in Europe.

The concept of a balance of forces was a challenge to common sense, world history, and European political traditions. Never before (and never again, let’s hope) did anyone in Europe attempt to apply meaningless forces and armaments balances even before negotiations. Numbers do play a part, of course; but just as much depends on political acumen, the courage and resolve of soldiers, and the patriotism and skill of military commanders. Yet for all its pointlessness, the balance idea proved useful and advantageous for those who sought to prolong the Cold War, then in its death throes – and succeeded in doing so. The negotiations militarized European politics, making the Europeans look at each other through gunsights.

If it were up to me, I’d send the CFE Treaty – that Cold War relic – to the political graveyard immediately. Russia hasn’t done so as yet; but it has announced that unless other countries start complying with the treaty’s terms in full, Russia will withdraw. These half-measure tactics may be appropriate. I don’t think the CFE Treaty can be modernized. But now the ball is in the other court, so our partners will have to explain why they are unable or unwilling to modernize the CFE Treaty and extend it to NATO’s new members. At the same time, they should also make another attempt at explaining to themselves why they need to deply strategic weapons – missile defense – in Europe. If the authors of that idea admit that deployment serves the purpose of securing continued funding for an ineffective missile defense system, or remilitarizing European politics, or weakening the positions of Old Europe countries, we shall appreciate their sincerity. But if they play insincere games with us, we’ll do the same.

The CFE Treaty is unnecessary. Thank God, no Europeans (apart from the most wretched) regard each other as a threat any longer. Troops and weapons, including American troops and weapons, have been reduced to a fraction of previous levels, and are still being reduced. In Europe, outside Russia, there are just over a million military personnel; but the continental Europeans couldn’t assemble an army of more than a few tens of thousands, at best – and only if the troops don’t have to participate in real military operations.

Russia is striving to restore the arms limitations regime. This is politically sound, most likely. Yet we should remember that the negotiations which were useful in the acute Cold War period were subsequently used as one of the main justifications for continuing the arms race.

If elements of the arms limitations can be restored, God forbid that we should take the path of traditional bilateral negotiations – on missile defense in Europe, for example. As soon as such talks begin, the Americans would be able to take a hardline stance, intimidate their allies with talk of betraying Atlantic solidarity, and demand concessions from Russia in return for limiting or not deploying weapons. This would lend strength to the arguments of those in Russia who have already proposed responding to missile defense deployment by restoring and aiming at Europe our entirely unnecessary and harmful intermediate-range missiles. The “unholy alliance” of the most blinkered and militant elite groups on both sides would be revived. Just like they did in the Cold War years, they would complement and perpetuate each other, at the expense of the majority.

It was probably appropriate for President Putin to mention discussing missile defense via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (another Cold War relic), essentially declining to discuss anti-missiles in a bilateral format.

Perhaps the OSCE might do something useful, for once – although it’s unlikely.

The mistakes of the late Cold War era must not be repeated. It’s good to see that Russia hasn’t fallen for yet another promise to work on joint missile defense in Europe. The West has been feeding us promises of that nature for the past 20 years.

If anyone wants to deploy weapons that are pointless from the security standpoint, let them pay the full political price for that.

We seem to be starting to learn from the mistakes of the past – learning not to repeat them. Therefore, the requiem for the CFE Treaty sounds optimistic.