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Russia: Chechen Operation Threatens Arms Treaty

  • Roland Eggleston

Diplomats in Vienna say that Russia's military intervention in Chechnya has thrown into doubt the signing of an important treaty governing the deployment of troops and other conventional forces in all European countries. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston in Vienna spoke to negotiators with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other diplomats.

Vienna, 4 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The number of Russian troops and weapons in Chechnya already exceeds the limits set under the existing Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe -- known as the CFE treaty.

And diplomats say the Russian contingent far exceeds what it would be allowed to deploy in the North Caucasus under the planned amendments to the treaty. Several said their governments are uneasy about accepting the new treaty in these circumstances.

The diplomats include negotiators at the OSCE and embassy officials who keep in touch with the negotiations. All requested anonymity in their conversations with an RFE/RL correspondent.

A senior Western diplomat told RFE/RL that Russia's standard response in the Vienna talks is that the limits have been exceeded because Russia has what it says are "supreme national interests" at stake in Chechnya. The diplomat said several countries consider that formulation to be an exaggeration. They fear that Moscow might raise the same claim about other areas to justify breaching the new CFE treaty.

The diplomats said a decision on what to do should be made by Friday (Nov. 5), when work on the new treaty comes to an end. The treaty is scheduled to be signed in Istanbul later this month at an OSCE summit meeting (Nov. 18-19).

The diplomats who spoke to RFE/RL declined to speculate on what decisions would be made on Friday. One of them said: "It could go either way. The doubts are strong. But there is also a strong desire by some countries to get something down on paper which can be held up to Russia, so that it can be told: 'This is what you committed yourself to do.'"

The same diplomat said the problems regarding the Istanbul summit were raised by U.S. President Bill Clinton at his meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Oslo on Tuesday. He said Clinton was "very forceful" and left Putin in no doubt about Washington's position on the Chechnya conflict. Before the meeting, Russia had agreed that the OSCE could send a team of observers to Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to monitor the humanitarian situation.

A French diplomat told RFE/RL it would be a severe setback for European peace and security if the new treaty on conventional weapons is not signed at the OSCE summit. The existing CFE treaty -- which has been in force since 1992 -- regulates the number and location of troops and conventional weapons that may be held by individual European countries.

The new treaty goes much further. Its basic idea is that no single country will be able to maintain military forces at levels that would enable it to hold a dominating position in Europe. NATO describes this concept as the "cornerstone" of a new security regime in Europe. Under the new treaty, countries will be assigned a maximum number of conventional forces of their own. They may also allow other countries to deploy a limited number of forces within their borders, up to a fixed limit of total forces. The limits specify numbers of tanks, helicopters and other equipment.

A senior Western diplomat engaged in the negotiations on the new treaty said that during most of the talks, Russia argued there should be no restrictions on the number of troops and equipment it deployed in the Caucasus. This was strongly rejected by the U.S. and other NATO countries, as well as by Georgia and Azerbaijan.

This diplomat also said Russia had long ignored the restrictions contained in the existing treaty, but other countries tolerated its behavior because the numbers were below those envisaged in the new treaty. But since September, he noted, the Russian build-up had far exceeded the limits for the North Caucasus in the new treaty.

When asked by how much, the diplomat responded: "Way, way beyond the limits." He added that, when challenged, Russia always repeated its claim that supreme national interests were at stake. The Vienna-based diplomats said that, in advance of the Istanbul summit, Russia has made some gestures toward meeting the concerns expressed by other countries. In the past few days, they said, Russia has provided some details of troop movements and the number of forces deployed in the North Caucasus. This was in response to demands from OSCE members for more transparency about Moscow's military operations in the area.

NATO's 19 members and other countries want to verify these figures in accordance with their rights under previous OSCE agreements. Russia has promised to allow foreign inspectors to monitor the situation, but said this can happen only when it is, in Moscow's phrase, "physically possible." This reservation has dismayed NATO members and several other countries.

For the past two months, NATO and the U.S. separately have also sought from Moscow a political declaration at the highest level on the new CFE treaty. They wanted an affirmation of Russia's commitment to honoring the new treaty's clauses on the deployment of conventional forces. Western diplomats said that Prime Minister Putin provided such a declaration in Oslo on Tuesday.

Another demand on Russia in advance of the Istanbul summit is for progress on matters such as the military withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova. A senior diplomat said there had been no real movement by Russia to meet these demands.

One diplomat summed up the situation yesterday in these words: "We have the high-level statement committing Russia to the CFE. We have some progress on the transparency of military action in the North Caucasus, and not much on Georgia and Moldova."

Whether that is enough to meet the OSCE's demands on Russia will probably be decided on Friday.