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East/West: Agreement On New CFE Treaty Jeopardized

As the Thursday opening of the Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) approaches, diplomats have apparently reached agreement on an updated version of the arms treaty governing conventional forces in Europe. The new document is scheduled to be signed during the summit. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports that the late progress came despite the fact that Russia's military incursion into Chechnya had put agreement on a new treaty in doubt.

Prague, 15 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The signing of a new treaty controlling the level of conventional forces in Europe (CFE) is set to be one of the highlights of the OSCE's two-day summit.

However, Russia's deepening thrust into the breakaway Caucasus republic of Chechnya, ostensibly in pursuit of Islamic terrorists, has complicated the picture until the last minute. That is because the number of Russian tanks, troops and helicopters in the region is in excess of treaty terms. This led some of the signatory countries to demand changes to the draft update to make such localized military build-ups harder, and to bring extra transparency to the process. Difficult negotiations on these and other problems were held for weeks, and were provisionally completed only days before the summit was due to open.

Behind that remains the bigger issue of whether the 30 treaty adherents should sign the new version at all while the basic treaty is being violated, even if Moscow says it will return within treaty limits as soon as possible.

Western nations, led by the United States, have been steadily increasing the volume of their protests to Russia about the Chechen operation, and what they see as the indiscriminate use of force against civilians. Moscow, reacting with increasing bitterness, rejects interference in what it sees as an internal affair. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has even suggested a Western plot to gain influence in the Caucasus.

Some military analysts argue that Moscow basically has more to lose than the West if the treaty update is not signed. That is because the new document mostly addresses Russian claims that the original treaty is outdated and is now unfair. Ian Kemp, a senior analyst with Jane's military publishing group, explains:

"Primarily [the treaty update] is a redistribution of Russian forces, because, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, Moscow has always claimed that the treaty is unfair to Russia and they have been pushing for a number of years to have the treaty amended to reflect their security concerns. And that's primarily raising the limits for Russian forces stationed in the northern zone of the treaty, bordering the Baltic states and Finland, and then the southern zone, bordering the Caucasus nations."

Kemp and another Jane's analyst, geo-politicist Peter Feltsted, agree that the original treaty has worked well. Feltsted also spoke with RFE/RL:

"To a certain extent the moves that were made to implement the CFE treaty have already stabilized the region, a lot of major weapons systems in various areas have been cut to much less-unbalancing levels, so it has already served a purpose of stabilization, as originally intended."

But exactly because of the success of the original treaty both analysts question whether the proposed update is as important as it might seem. They point to the fact that force levels on both the NATO and former Warsaw Pact sides are today mostly far below what is allowed by the CFE treaty. As the Warsaw Pact forces were numerically stronger than the NATO forces, their cuts under the treaty were correspondingly bigger.

And considering the severe economic constraints in Russia, a buildup in overall excess of the treaty limits by that country any time soon does not seem likely.

At any rate, the West has tried in the treaty update to recognize and react to Russia's concerns: U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Rubin speaking earlier this month:

"We certainly want to do all we can to see that this important treaty is adapted to the post-cold war environment that we now live in. Russia's overall record of compliance with the treaty has been good, [but] clearly they are above the [current]ceiling [in Chechnya] and probably above the potential ceiling as well."

If the 30 signatories to the treaty agree to the results of the last-minute diplomatic negotiations, the CFE treaty update will be clear for signing in Istanbul. If not, then the Chechen conflict will have claimed another victim, the treaty itself.