Russia and the West need a new system of treaties

If the installation of missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic can’t be stopped, Russia will need some sort of new guarantees. By withdrawing from the CFE Treaty, the Kremlin is telling the West that it is open to bargaining.

Washington and Moscow have exchanged another series of “warning signals.” The US Senate voted by an overwhelming majority to declare that building a global missile defense system is one of the main goals of US policy. The Kremlin responded by suspending our participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. From the outside, all this might look like another step toward Cold War II. In reality, it’s only clearing the table for further diplomatic bargaining.

In recent months, Russia’s foreign policy strategists have been under the pleasing illusion that the next US president might trash plans for installing missile defense elements in Eastern Europe. There were some reasons for this assumption. Key figures in the Democratic Party have been saying that Bush’s missile defense initiatives are expensive and useless toys.

Late last week, however, the Republicans shattered Moscow’s illusions. A Republican senator from Alabama made an impassioned speech, arguing that lack of unity in Washington undermines US foreign policy positions.

When the Senate voted to endorse the idea that building a missile defense system is vital for the United States, the vote-count resembled elections in Tajikistan: 90 out of 100 senators in favor.

The US Senate’s demarche probably wasn’t the direct cause of Moscow’s announcement about suspending participation in the CFE Treaty; but the Alabama senator’s initiative was further evidence that a fundamental revision of old disarmament treaties is essential.

The CFE Treaty, signed back in 1990, turned into a political antique within a couple of years. It was signed when the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union still existed. Adhering to the CFE Treaty in present-day political realities would be like using a book of laws from the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th Century.

In the Yeltsin era, this didn’t cause much concern in Moscow. All our hopes were focused on receiving yet another portion of financial aid from the West. In the early Putin era, when everyone was fighting Al Qaeda together, revising the CFE Treaty wasn’t viewed as a priority either. But now is the very time to start establishing a new system of treaties. After all, if the installation of missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic can’t be stopped, we’ll need some sort of new guarantees. By withdrawing from the CFE Treaty, the Kremlin is telling the West that it is open to bargaining.

The Europeans and the Americans won’t like this, of course. They’ve grown accustomed to the idea that Moscow will make a fuss, but eventually give in. But they can’t have their cake and eat ti too. The West will have to accept the inevitable. The priority now is to bargain for new terms. This can’t be done in a month, or even a year. It’s a difficult task, and it will probably be up to Vladimir Putin’s successor. In a sense, that’s fair enough. Suspending the CFE Treaty will bring in extra votes for the Kremlin’s candidate in the presidential election – and there’s a price to be paid for everything.

Alexander Pikayev, head of the Disarmament and Conflict Regulation Department, Institute of Global Economics and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences:

This is primarily the fault of the West, due to its recalcitrant stand on the adapted CFE Treaty. The West has refused to ratify the adapted CFE Treaty of 1999 – but Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have ratified it. The West has also breached the provisions of the original CFE Treaty of 1990 – it has exceeded its expansion quotas (due to NATO expansion). Russia recently tried convening an emergency conference in Vienna to resolve the CFE Treaty situation, but this attempt failed. Hence the latest decision.

Russia is not withdrawing from the CFE Treaty – only suspending compliance, temporarily (although no time-frame is specified). What does this mean? Russia will not inform other CFE Treaty signatories about arms quantities in the European part of Russia; it will not consider itself bound by any restrictions in that regard. Russia will no longer accept CFE Treaty inspection teams (this may be the most painful point for the West); it will not observe flank restrictions.

The West has already expressed regret about Russia’s move. This is indeed a source of concern for many Europeans, who regard this treaty as a cornerstone of regional security. I don’t think the West will take any retaliatory measures of a military nature. It will probably keep trying to argue that Russia isn’t fulfilling its obligations. Will the West now accept Russia’s proposals? That’s unlikely: it would mean a loss of face for the West. This situation could create a new line of confrontation within NATO and the European Union. On one side, the United States, Poland, and some other Eastern European countries with hard-line policies on relations with Russia. On the other side, Old Europe – especially Germany and the Netherlands – proposing more compromise and flexibility. But their indecision and fear of undermining alliance solidarity (a relic of the Cold War) has prevented them from winning the argument.