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U.S. Halts Arms Treaty Cooperation With Russia


Russian tanks and armored vehicles on display in Moscow.
Russian tanks and armored vehicles on display in Moscow.
The United States has announced that it will not allow Russian inspections of U.S. bases or share data with Russia on its nonnuclear weapons stores in Europe after years of failed efforts to revitalize a Cold War-era arms treaty.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who served as the leading U.S. negotiator on the issue before taking up her current post, announced the decision to stop meeting its obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty with respect to Russia.

"The U.S. has made a decision to cease implementing vis-a-vis Russia certain obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty," Nuland said. "This move responds to Russia's cessation of implementation of the CFE, which began in December 2007, and the subsequent impasse with Moscow on a way forward."

She added: "It is our understanding that a number, if not all, of the NATO allies will do the same."

Observers suggest the impact of the decision is more symbolic than practical, since other signatories are likely to forward such information on to Moscow.

But it highlights persistent differences over missile defense and continued fallout from 2008 hostilities between Russia and neighboring Georgia that left Russian troops on the soil of a fledgling former Soviet republic.

Failure To Renegotiate

First signed in Paris in 1990 by the members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact countries, the CFE treaty set equal limits on both sides for non-nuclear, or conventional, weapons that could be used for large-scale offensives.

Also establishing ceilings for troops as well as exchanges of information and an inspection regime, the treaty was seen at the time as key to European security at the end of the Cold War.

Russia sought to renegotiate the CFO treaty in the late 1990s after a number of former Warsaw Pact nations joined NATO, rendering the treaty's bloc-based provisions obsolete.

An updated treaty was signed in 1999, but NATO countries refused to ratify it, insisting that Russia must first withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region.

The roadblocks both sides originally faced in trying to reform the treaty have hung over more recent negotiations as well, said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and an expert on arms control in the former Soviet Union.

"There was an effort in 2010 to try to see if there was a way to get the regime back into place or at least come up with principles for restoring a limitation regime on CFE, and it really foundered over the question of how to handle Georgia," Pifer said. "From the United States' side, a key principle of any CFE-type arrangement is that a host country has a sovereign right to say yes or no to foreign troops on its territory -- host nation consent. And the problem of course was how do you deal with South Ossetia and Abkhazia?"

'Not Reciprocated'

After the short but bloody Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Moscow recognized the self-declared independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both breakaway Georgian territories. Most countries, including the United States, say the regions remain under Tbilisi.

Scrapped U.S. plans for land-based missile defense structures in Eastern Europe also hung over the treaty, with former Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring in 2007 that the treaty limited his nation's ability to respond to increasing threats.

He suspended Russian participation for all 30 signatory countries.

The State Department's Nuland said that after repeated efforts to make progress with Russia and the choice to continue to meet its own treaty requirements along the way, Washington decided that "We don't think it's in our interest to provide data that's not reciprocated."

She said that the United States had not abandoned hope for modernizing and reimplementing the treaty with Russia, saying the decision could "crystallize the mind in terms of our ability to get back to the table."

In practical terms, Washington will continuing sending weapons data to other treaty signatories, such as Belarus, which could choose to pass it along to Russia.

With defense budgets dropping across Eurasia and with most signatory countries -- other than Armenia and Azerbaijan -- maintaining stockpiles well below the treaty limit, the information is also not considered particularly vital to Russia.

"I think this is mainly a symbolic gesture," said Pifer. "Certainly there are other countries that may get the information and they may choose to share it with Russia; and, quite frankly, given its national technical means, Russia probably has a pretty good fix on a lot of this information in any case."

Pifer said such information was being provided as a confidence-building measure, adding that "it's particularly useful for countries other than the United States and Russia that don't have the sophisticated satellites and other capabilities that Washington and Moscow have to track this sort of thing."

"So in real terms, is this going to be a huge impact on Moscow? Probably not. But I think it is designed to send a signal."

'Two To Tango'

But in announcing the toughened U.S. stance, Nuland was also asked whether the signal is meant to refer to more than just the state of negotiations on the arms treaty.

Washington is also currently at an impasse with Moscow over the possibility of sharing resources toward a European missile defense system.

While Nuland said the two are different issues, she suggested that in general, increased flexibility on Russia’s part would be welcome.

"From this point of view, we don't see a direct connection between the two: missile defense is missile defense, conventional arms control is conventional arms control," Nuland said. "We want to have both. We want to have a good, collaborative relationship with Russia on both -- but it takes two to tango."

Nuland also downplayed concern that the U.S. move ran counter to the spirit of "resetting" relations with Moscow.

"What we've always said about the reset is that the reset would enable us to collaborate and cooperate more where we could, but also to be clear and honest when we have difficulties and we have differences," Nuland said.

"We thought it was important to be clear now."

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