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Russia Makes Good on its Threat to Suspend Arms Treaty

Today the Duma voted 418-0 in favor of a new law scrapping Russia’s obligations to conform with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), an agreement which traces its roots all the way back to Nixon and Brezhnev.

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(Photo: AFP)

Nobody should be too surprised: President Putin threatened this moratorium in an April 26th speech as a response to the U.S. plans for missile defense sites in Europe, and now he is putting his money where his mouth is. “I believe that the right course of action is for Russia to declare a moratorium on its observance of this treaty until such time as all NATO members without exception ratify it and start strictly observing its provisions, as Russia has been doing so far on a unilateral basis,” Putin said, referring to the Fifth Expansion members such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia. If approved by the president, the law will take effect December 12, one week after the parliamentary elections. So begins the month-long countdown…

Some are already panicking. Christopher Langton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told the FT that “If you lose the CFE, the ability of European states to oversee military activity in other countries would disappear overnight. … This treaty was formed on the basis of pragmatism. It is being hijacked by politics by the two biggest players on the world stage.“I take a more realist view of the CFE moratorium – by and large, the Russians are right to demand ratification of the treaty, as agreed during the Istanbul Summit of 1999. It may be alarming to see this news so close to other incidents of chest-puffing and hawkish strutting by Russia, but frankly there is a strong case that the treaty is outdated.The CFE (read the full text here) was signed in Paris on November 19, 1990 by then-members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, setting equal limits for the stationing of conventional arms (such as tanks, artillery, combat aircraft, and helicopters) for both blocs between the Atlantic and the Ural mountains. Of course, since the end of the Cold War, the security situation is radically different in Europe, with the expansion of NATO, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and … well, aren’t we all supposed to be peaceful neighbors by now? That’s why member nations signed the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (the Istanbul amendments), giving more parity to Russia by setting the arms limits on a national and territorial basis rather than according to the two blocs. Only a handful of countries besides Russia have ratified the updated CFE, as they likely feel safer as part of the new, larger bloc. NATO, on its behalf, wants Russia to withdraw troops from Georgia and Moldova as part of the deal.Some analysts have argued that the Russians are acutely aware that most of Washington’s military, security, and diplomatic resources are being sucked up by Iraq, and for the first time in decades they have “room to breath” and are looking to capitalize on this American absence to rebuild defenses. Stratfor writesRussia is not simply trying to amend the security structures that govern its relationship with the West; it is trying to convince the West to help it lock in a new system that is more representative of Russian fears and strengths.“That said, Washington has shown an alarming lack of concern over the situation of arms treaties with Russia, as demonstrated by the recent rather fruitless visit by Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates to Moscow (perhaps they were a bit sore about being made to wait 40 minutes). It doesn’t take a genius blogger to tell you that Russia’s cooperation on this treaty is most certainly laden with proposed conditions and concessions, most likely involving a preferred solution to the missile shield dispute.On paper, the technical substance of a modernized CFE is reasonable, pragmatic and supposedly not too difficult to accomplish for both sides. However, in its political context, there are much larger issues at stake concerning a fundamental redefinition of global power relations. As noted earlier on this blog, Russia has been dramatically successful over an extremely short period of time of making itself an indispensable player in the Middle East, and the most important interlocutor with Iran. There’s also the familiar pattern of Russia creating international problems, and then offering solutions for a price.Is a “major deal” in the works between Moscow and Washington? On Oct. 30, the IHT quoted “a senior NATO diplomat who said that the United States is prepared to offer concessions to Russia over the CFE to try to persuade Moscow to soften its positions on Kosovo and Iran. In the article, Tomas Valesek of the Centre for European Reform said “The Baltic states and the countries of Eastern Europe are desperately afraid of the U.S. trying to do a grand bargain with Putin. … These countries fear that once you go down this road, Putin’s appetite will become even bigger.“I don’t think that the worries of Langton and Valesek will materialize quite so quickly. Russia has not worked this hard to establish its influence in the Middle East just to trade it away for a couple of concessions on the CFE. Looking at how terribly things are going for the Americans in Iraq, I’m sure Moscow will want to extract the highest price for its political support. Also it is difficult to tell how seriously Russia views the security threat from its European border – although the possibility of armed conflict between Russia and Europe seems ludicrous to us, we know from past leaks of Kremlin memos that we are dealing with an elaborately paranoid mentality characteristic of former KGB men. Determining the value of each concession for both sides will be critical to save this important arms treaty.However we must keep in mind that the most important thing for the current Russian leadership is domestic stability during the elections and the transfer of power from Putin the President to Putin the Prime Minister. We have already seen just how shaky the foundations are underneath the ruling clique following the spy wars, and the last thing Moscow can afford is the introduction of unknown variables. That’s why my money is on Russia maintaining status quo with the West for now – confrontation is such an appealing nationalist message to sell to the public.