Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Why the West Should Stick with Conventional Arms Control in Europe for Now
Why the West Should Stick with Conventional Arms Control in Europe for Now

Why the West Should Stick with Conventional Arms Control in Europe for Now

Bottom Line

  • After Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Arms Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) formally enters into force on November 7, 2023, the remaining twenty-nine member states need to decide whether they want to keep the Treaty or dissolve it for good.

  • The CFE Treaty no longer corresponds to the present state of European security, but its transparency and verification regime can still provide limited security advantages for NATO members and strengthen deterrence.

  • A formal dissolution of the Treaty would undermine Western normative commitments to military transparency. In the long run, it could lead to a loss of expertise on how to conduct inspections and information exchange, which might become relevant again in the context of ending Russia’s war against Ukraine.

On May 10, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that marked the end of an era. He formally initiated Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Arms Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty or “Treaty”). The Treaty obliges its members, including the United States, to respect limits for the overall number of certain categories of major conventional weapon systems and establishes procedures for transparency and verification from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. It also creates special security zones (“flanks”) with lower sub-regional ceilings, which, among others, cover Norway, the Black Sea region, and the southern part of Ukraine, including Crimea. 

Now, NATO allies who are parties to the Treaty find themselves pondering what to do next. At the obligatory conference of state parties that followed the Russian withdrawal on June 29, 2023, many allies expressed strong support for the Treaty and condemned Moscow’s decision. Yet, as the Russian withdrawal becomes legally effective on November 7, 2023, the remaining twenty-nine member states need to decide whether they want to keep the Treaty or dissolve it for good. If a decision about the fate of the Treaty is to be made, it should be a coordinated and clear-eyed response. 

Signed in 1990, the Treaty led to an unprecedented conventional disarmament process in Europe by destroying more than 72,000 pieces of military equipment. It also established a robust military transparency and verification regime among initially twenty-two (and later thirty) states, which at the time still belonged to two different alliances: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Together with the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures of the Organization on Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Open Skies Treaty, it formed a web of interlocking and mutually reinforcing arms control obligations and commitments that were supposed to promote a new regional security order built upon trust and cooperation.    

More than three decades later, this new order is in ruins. The Russian war against Ukraine has ended all prospects for cooperative pan-European security relations, at least for the foreseeable future. Russia’s decision to withdraw from the CFE Treaty in May 2023, then, changes little in practice. Moscow already suspended its participation in 2007 and no longer provided data in the annual exchange of military information or took part in treaty-required inspections. In 2015, it also left the Joint Consultative Group—the common forum of member states to consider rules and compliance. “The old treaty,” as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Parlamentskaya Gazeta on May 15,has long ceased to correspond to reality.” 

Are There Still Benefits to Keeping the CFE Treaty? 

The CFE Treaty is the most comprehensive and successful conventional arms control treaty in history. Often hailed as the “cornerstone of European security,” it established agreed-upon ceilings for the holdings of battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters. By reducing this “treaty limited equipment,” the Treaty followed the logic of what analysts refer to as the offensive-defensive relationship: A stable balance of (offensive) conventional forces between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would reduce the capability for launching surprise attacks and initiating large-scale offensive action in Europe. 

Today, however, the overall ceilings set by the Treaty—which was negotiated in the final years of the Cold War—are largely irrelevant. According to the Treaty, Germany, for example, is able to retain more than 4,000 battle tanks when, in reality, the country currently possesses less than 350. The United States alone can station 784 combat aircraft in Europe, but the total assets of the 3rd Air Force with responsibilities for Europe and Africa currently include just 217 different aircraft, only some of which are fighter jets. 

Nevertheless, in some instances, like the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Treaty can provide an instrument to address militarization and the continuing violation of limits. For instance, even after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenia continued to provide at least some forms of notifications in 2021. At the same time, in 2020, Yerevan announced that, given security concerns and political sensitivities, it would exclude Turkish CFE inspectors. However, this was a policy it was reportedly unable to implement in 2021 due to the suspension of verification activities. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, allegedly, has returned to host verification activities. An eventual political settlement of the conflict between both states, following renewed military action in September 2023, would have a positive effect on existing compliance concerns and would allow the monitoring of the regional security situation more closely in the future. 

In this context, the most valuable element of the Treaty still remains the comprehensive transparency and verification regime. Every year the remaining twenty-nine member states exchange data about their holdings, including numbers, types, and locations of conventional weapons, and conduct on-site inspections at military bases to verify the accuracy of this information. While the Treaty was never intended as a mechanism to render military aggression impossible, it has served as—and can continue to serve as—a benchmark for the visibility of forces. This way, it works similarly to other confidence and security-building agreements. For instance, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, data from the Vienna Document’s annual information exchange and the Global Exchange of Military Information provided NATO members with additional indications about changing Russian force posture.  

Thus, while such measures do not prevent states from going to war or using military activities to intimidate others, they can help to limit deception attempts and provide explicit warning signals in case of non-compliance. Moreover, without the CFE Treaty, NATO members would lose useful insights into the armed forces of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova. 

The Joint Consultative Group, which meets in Vienna, also still provides some space for professional contacts, particularly after CFE member states returned to a mix of in-person and hybrid meetings. These contacts might be particularly relevant in the case of Belarus, a close Russian ally that has nonetheless signaled interest in keeping the CFE Treaty. Last year, after the COVID-19 interval, but during Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarus claimed that it had once again opened its territory for inspections. Minsk insists that it will continue to implement the CFE Treaty and notify military activities as required by the Vienna Document. This is in stark contrast to Russia, which has also ceased to provide data in relation to the document’s annual exchange of information. 

NATO members have understandably remained reluctant to respond to Belarussian offers. Minsk’s tightening dependency on Moscow, its direct contribution to the invasion of Ukraine, and the egregious behavior of some Belarusian officials make any such collaboration at the moment difficult to imagine. Poland, for example, has announced that it will cease to implement certain articles of the CFE Treaty with regard to Belarus, because of Minsk’s part in Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. Similarly, Lithuania, which is not a member of the CFE Treaty, suspended the practical implementation of an additional bilateral agreement with Belarus on confidence and security-building measures. 

Meanwhile, NATO members are hashing out the details of the decisions at their summits in Madrid and Vilnius, including the deployment of permanent, multinational brigades in member states on the eastern flank and a substantial increase in the very high-readiness joint task force as part of the new force model. The alliance has also agreed to prioritize the integration of air and missile defenses. Moreover, the NATO membership of Finland and, possibly soon, Sweden, presents new opportunities for force planning given the fact that NATO members will now control the shores of the Baltic Sea except for the Russian coastlines. As the current commander of the Russian Navy, Nikolai Yevmenov, noted in a recent publication in Military Thought, the navies of Finland and Estonia could block Russia’s access to Kaliningrad through the Gulf of Finland with naval mines. 

Russia, on the other hand, has seen its Treaty-limited equipment destroyed on a massive scale in Ukraine. Hence, if defense procurement continues as planned, NATO members could find themselves in an increasingly favorable position concerning the conventional balance of forces. Nevertheless, the alliance should not take this situation for granted because of the asymmetries within the force postures of Russia, Belarus, and NATO members. The former, for example, can conceal military maneuvers and move hardware more easily due to their proximity, while transatlantic reinforcements will always require more time and depend on US air and sealift capabilities.

Under these conditions, keeping the levels of transparency that the Treaty provides could make threats more credible. After all, the effectiveness of deterrence ultimately depends on the ability to remove any doubts about the capabilities and willingness of the defender to act decisively in case of aggression. This is not to say that states cannot profit from strategic ambiguity in general, but the benefits of this approach are currently doubtful, given that even Russian analysts and strategists question Moscow’s ability to sustain a conventional conflict against NATO. 

Promises and Perils of Cooperative Security 

Despite these potential benefits, the CFE Treaty no longer corresponds to the present state of European security. The original negotiations kicked off in March 1989 just after sixteen years of similar talks had ended without any tangible results. Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, however, was eyeing the political and financial benefits of disarmament to improve East-West relations and, more importantly, to provide the necessary conditions for the success of perestroika and glasnost. As a result, Gorbachev and his supporters agreed to major changes in the Soviet defense posture, often against the will of the military establishment. 

As part of the Treaty, Warsaw Pact member states gave up on their previous numerical advantages of conventional forces in Europe and instead settled on a balance of forces with NATO. The situation today is starkly different. On the one hand, NATO members are collectively far superior to Russia in the available numbers of conventional weapon systems, but implementing the ongoing changes to NATO’s force posture on the Eastern flank will take time and likely face some obstacles along the way. 

Meanwhile, Russia currently has no interest in reducing its conventional forces or limiting its flexibility. To the contrary, Moscow has announced changes to its force posture that, if successful, would see the establishment of an army corps in Karelia, new divisions in the occupied Ukrainian territories, and the re-establishment of the Leningrad and Moscow military districts, which were dissolved in 2010. 

The integration of Russia into the institutionalized and Western-dominated European security order is not in the cards any time soon, even after a ceasefire or temporary political settlement in Ukraine. Hence, there are legitimate doubts about why NATO members who are part of the Treaty regime should be bound by provisions that are irrelevant to their main adversary. 

Indeed, without the Treaty, member states, especially those sharing a border with either Belarus or Russia but also Ukraine, would gain full freedom and flexibility when it comes to their force posture. Ongoing rearmament processes may come into conflict with the Treaty’s high Cold War ceilings in the future. 

Poland, for example, is set to acquire more than 1,200 new combat vehicles and other equipment from the United States and South Korea, and plans to increase its army to 300,000 soldiers by 2035. However, there are few publicly available details about what this new force posture would entail. According to the 1992 Concluding Act of the Negotiation on Personnel Strength of Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Poland is permitted no more than 1,730 Treaty-allocated battle tanks and an upper limit of 234,000 military personnel based on land. 

The implementation of the Treaty itself creates arguably a modest financial burden for NATO countries. Nevertheless, the cost can still be significant for very small member states. This level of asymmetry extends to the exchange of information and the regulation of weapon systems. Given the incredibly close ties between Minsk and Moscow, Belarus’ membership provides Russia with the opportunity to receive all Treaty-related data. The Treaty officially prohibits this transfer, but there can be little doubt about the level of collaboration between Minsk and Moscow. Finally, if Western member states continue to adhere to Treaty requirements, they would unilaterally continue to provide information about major conventional equipment, respect weapons ceilings, and keep the inspection regime. Russia, meanwhile, would be free to produce and deploy whichever equipment it deems necessary without any cooperative limits or oversight. 

At the moment, this information exchange imbalance would hardly result in any negative net security effects for NATO. After all, this has been the status quo for more than fifteen years, when Moscow initially suspended its practical participation in the CFE Treaty. In addition, a potential conflict between NATO and Russia would arguably involve long-range precision-guided weaponry, electronic warfare capabilities, missile defense systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and uncrewed surface vehicles, among others, which are not subject to any Treaty restrictions. Overall, keeping the Treaty would also emphasize the alliance’s normative commitment to arms control, which, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has put it, is in the DNA of the alliance. 

Is There Any Future for Conventional Arms Control? 

While Moscow’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty changes little on the ground for now, it symbolizes an end of the idea of cooperative security in Europe. In this context, the Russo-Ukrainian War is related to Putin’s historical grievances towards Ukraine, but it is also an attempt to reshape the European security order. As Moscow has stated bluntly multiple times, it would like for this new security order to reflect a more advantageous balance of forces. Ditching the Treaty in combination with refusing to comply with the Vienna Document is a logical step to convey this agenda. 

NATO allies need to conduct a careful assessment of what comes next, and whether the CFE Treaty, or at least some of its elements, might still be helpful in addressing security challenges in the future. The short-term prospects for confidence- and security-building with Russia and Belarus, let alone disarmament initiatives, are certainly grim. But simply keeping the Treaty on stand-by could still signal a commitment to future opportunities. 

Western officials should consider what European security will look like after Russia’s war against Ukraine. Any conceivable end-game scenario would arguably result in a high concentration of conventional forces and equipment in the region, even after a ceasefire or preliminary political settlement. A continued strategic conflict between Russia on the one hand and NATO and Ukraine on the other, which is likely, would always risk renewed military action. Under these circumstances, knowledge about how to conduct inspections and information exchange about conventional armed forces and major equipment might come in handy. Once lost, it will be difficult to rebuild the necessary expertise from scratch.         

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: US Army (Photo by Capt. Dan Yarnall)