Prague, 2 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces (CFE) was signed in Paris in 1990 by the 22 members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact.
Wade Boese is the director of research for the Washington-based Arms Control Association, which has monitored the CFE since its inception. He says the original treaty set equal limits for East and West on key conventional armaments essential for surprise attacks or initiating large-scale offensive operations. "The CFE treaty limits heavy conventional weaponry. So we're talking about tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters," he told RFE/RL.
The original CFE entered into force in 1992. An amended agreement was signed in Istanbul in 1999. The so-called Adapted CFE Treaty takes into account the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the planned NATO entry of some former communist countries.
The adapted agreement was overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Since the Istanbul conference, however, both NATO and the OSCE have expressed concern that Russia has failed to fulfill its 1999 commitments to withdraw forces from Georgia and Moldova.
“It seems as if Moscow is always walking back and they are always somewhat in retreat from the former Soviet empire, and I do not think that sits well with the military in general."
Boese says Russia's failure to comply could threaten the very existence of the CFE mechanism. That is because the future ratification of the adapted CFE treaty is conditioned on Russia fulfilling its Istanbul commitments.
In Georgia, Russia has already withdrawn from two bases at Vaziani and Gudauta. But Tbilisi has accused Moscow of dragging its feet on two additional bases -- Akhalkalaki and Batumi. Russia says it will take 14 years to pull out of the bases; Georgia says three years is adequate. The Istanbul agreement provides no timeline for the withdrawal.
In Moldova, Moscow says people living in the Russian-speaking breakaway region of Transdniester have obstructed attempts to withdraw ammunition and Russian troops stationed there. The troops and munitions were due to be withdrawn by December 2001. Russia failed to meet that date as well as two subsequent extensions.
Moldovans who are opposed to the Russian presence in their country say Moscow wants to keep its forces in Transdniester in order to bolster the pro-Moscow separatist region. They also say Moscow is eager to have a western base from which to counter NATO's eastward enlargement.
A spokesman for the OSCE in Moldova, Klaus Neukirch, says his organization has made allowances for delays due to holidays and bad weather. But he says the group is disturbed by Russia's continued failure to transfer munitions. "As of today, there are approximately still 22,000 tons of ammunition in a deposit in the Transdniester region and around 1,300 Russian troops in this region," he said. "Withdrawal of the ammunition -- if it went ahead without any technical problems and without any delay -- could be done within approximately five months."
Neukirch says there has been no official request from the Russians for renegotiation of the existing agreements. However, he indicated that behind-the-scenes talks were happening. "This is an issue which is constantly raised on different levels with the Russian authorities. It is in the nature of diplomacy and the nature of these discussions that they are not always communicated to the press. But there is something certainly ongoing," he said.
Neukirch would not say whether the OSCE has accepted as credible Russia's explanations on the standoff, saying only that the OSCE has yet to receive a "satisfactory explanation." "We have not engaged in in-depth discussions on the reasons given by the Russian Federation why this has not been the case," he added.
He said it was up to Russia to solve its problems. "It is for the Russian Federation to find, in contact with the Trandniester authorities, a solution they might have with Transdniester's resistance [to the transfer of ammunition]," he said.
Wade Boese of the Arms Control Association was more blunt. He said it was simply unbelievable that obstacles in Moldova and Georgia were too steep for Russia to overcome. "I think it's somewhat complicit in its own blackmail -- and here I'm speaking about Russia, in the sense that if it really wanted to resolve these issues, it probably could," he said.
Boese says one reason Russia may be reluctant to withdraw from Georgia and Moldova is financial. Russia simply does not have the money to build new facilities for returning troops and weapons. "Another, I think, is a matter of pride,” he said. “It seems as if Moscow is always walking back and they are always somewhat in retreat from the former Soviet empire, and I do not think that sits well with the military in general. And third, there's the concern that when Russia leaves [Georgia and Moldova], NATO or United States forces may replace them."
He said senior politicians and members of the Russian military are dismayed at the prospect of NATO or U.S. military buildups in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- which are scheduled for NATO membership this year -- as well as in Poland, which is already a member.
Boese says he does not believe the United States intends to deploy large forces -- or any at all -- in either Georgia or Moldova. Nor does he think NATO is likely to build a substantial presence in Poland or the Baltic states. The adapted CFE treaty would allow for a limitation of the Baltic states' armed forces.
"The CFE treaty that now exists was negotiated at a time when it was the Warsaw Pact versus NATO. The treaty no longer reflects current reality. Russia would gain additional flexibility in how it could deploy its forces and it could also create the opportunity for other countries to join the treaty so they would get limits imposed on their armed forces in their countries, their territories, as well. And specifically, I'm talking about the three Baltic countries which are scheduled to join NATO later this year," Boese said.
Boese believes Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his apparent intractability on the issue, is adopting a tough stance before the 14 March presidential elections to show the electorate he will not allow the West to push his country around. "After the election takes place, I think he will feel a little bit more secure in saying, 'let's make a deal and let's get this done' because the adapted CFE treaty is important to Russia and is something that, I would presume, they want in force soon," he said.
That, says Boese, will benefit everyone.