Vienna, 21 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The U.S., Russia and another 28 governments began talks in Vienna today on updating a 1990 treaty which limits the number of non-nuclear weapons which can be held in Western and Eastern Europe.
The negotiations, which our correspondent reports might take years to complete, are being held at Russia's insistence. Russia argues that the 1990 Treaty on limiting conventional weapons -- the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) -- was drawn up during the confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and does not reflect the current situation in Europe. Russia not only wants to change some of the military provisions in the Treaty, but also believes it should be given a more political character.
Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov has said several times that the negotiations beginning today are of major military and political importance to Moscow. He has underlined his point declaring that Russia will sign an agreement on special relations with NATO, only if the CFE Treaty is amended according to its wishes.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels responded by saying that the Treaty will certainly be amended, but it is uncertain to what extent. "Russia is unlikely to get all it wants," the spokesman this week told RFE/RL.
The 1990 Treaty focused on the non-nuclear weapons held by NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe up to the Urals. Its goal was to achieve a balance with a 50-50 split between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The Treaty first imposed limits on the maximum number of tanks, artillery, armored cars, combat helicopters and warplanes -- and their crews -- which could be deployed by each side in Europe. It then went further, by dividing Europe into zones. Specific limits were set on the number of these weapons which could be held in each of the zones.
All sides agree that the original Treaty has generally been honored, despite problems in some areas. More than 58,000 pieces of conventional armaments and equipment have been destroyed under international supervision.
Russia's dissatisfaction is prompted by the disunion of the USSR, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. One of Moscow's most publicised complaints is that the zones are no longer realistic. It no longer needs large forces in zones facing Germany and other NATO states. Instead, Moscow says it needs more forces in the Caucasus than the Treaty allows.
Last year, NATO and the other signatories recognized Russia's concerns and agreed to allow Moscow to break the Treaty -- but only on a temporary basis. An agreement in May last year allowed Russia to send more tanks and artillery to the Caucasus. However, these exceptions expire in May 1999. By that date, Russia -- and every other signatory -- is supposed to comply fully with the Treaty.
Russia now says that agreement is not a satisfactory solution.
It argues that not just the zones are wrong, but also the principle of a 50-50 split between NATO and the former Warsaw Pact. Moscow argues that the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, so why should there be a bloc-to-bloc division. Instead, it wants the ceilings on armaments to be fixed for individual countries.
Western diplomats say that, in practice, this might allow Russia more non-nuclear forces than it has under the present agreement. And, if the zones are also abolished, Russia will have more flexibility in moving its forces around the Federation.
Western diplomats say cautiously that Russia may get at least some of what it wants on these points. A U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, John Kornblum, told correspondents last month that an agreement might be reached on ceilings for individual countries.
However, Kornblum made clear that any such agreement would be conditioned on safeguards to stop any country becoming too powerful and a possible threat to others.
But Russia wants more. With an eye on the planned expansion of NATO, Moscow says that alliances should not have more forces than allowed under the existing Treaty. In practice, this means that, if the current 16 members of NATO are expanded to 20, their overall total of forces will not grow.
Russia also wants to stop NATO deploying its non-nuclear forces on the territory of its new members. It has called for an agreement declaring that no foreign forces should be permanently deployed in countries where they were not deployed in November 1995. That was the date in which the current Treaty was supposed to come into force. In practice, it was delayed for some months for technical reasons.
Russia's demands on the negotiations, which began in Vienna today, are quite specific. However, the talks will be conducted according to a mandate approved last month by all 30 signatories to the Treaty.
For example, the mandate speaks only of the "possibility" of establishing national ceilings for armaments, rather than zone limits. In fact, the mandate says the principle of zone limits should be preserved. It argues this would prevent what it calls "destabilising accumulations of forces."
This warning is reinforced in several places. And there is additional language that makes clear that no country or group of countries should be allowed to build up forces in any one area so they are a threat -- or appear to be a threat -- to another country.
To some extent this reflects the concerns of Turkey, which has made no secret of its disapointment at last year's temporary arrangement allowing Russia to break the Treaty and build up its forces in the Caucasus, not too far from Turkey's border. But it also reflects the concerns of countries which might join NATO in the next few years, and fear there could be a build-up of Russian forces near their borders.
The mandate also says that every country, either individually or in association with others, should only maintain such military capabilities as are commensurate with legitimate security needs. It says speciifically that the negotiations should not result in a situation which adversely affects the legitimate security interests of another country.
This safeguard is not only confined to the 30 countries which signed the current Treaty. The negotiating mandate also says there should be no threat to the security of any of the 54 states in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This would cover not only the neutral countries, but also the Baltics -- which are not parties to the current CFE Treaty.
At Russia's suggestion, the negotiations beginning today will also consider opening the Treaty to countries that were not members of NATO or the former Warsaw Pact. Russia has suggested that perhaps the Baltic States and the neutrals Sweden and Finland could join.
Despite the Russian Foreign Minister's attempts to link the CFE negotiations to the conclusion of a Russia-NATO special accord, there is no time limit on the talks beginning today. Our correspondent notes that negotiations on the original treaty took three very difficult years. And, in a further indication that these negotiations may also take their time, the mandate says a report will be submitted to the next meeting of OSCE foreign ministers. That meeting is scheduled to be held in Copenhagen next December.