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U.S.-Russia Relations Chill Over Arms

On December 12, Russia officially suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. What does it mean for U.S.-Russia relations?

The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, or CFE, was signed on November 19, 1990 between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and the Warsaw Pact, the east and central European military alliance led by the Soviet Union. The treaty set limits on the number of combat aircraft, attack helicopters, heavy artillery, armored combat vehicles and divisions that could be deployed from the Atlantic Ocean to Russia's Ural Mountains.

Robert Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, says the treaty's main goal was to reduce the Warsaw Pact's overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons. "The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty is a legacy of the Cold War. It was originally negotiated in order to make the conventional force balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact more transparent and more predictable, to reduce the chances of conflict - not so much by design as by accident - and also to enable countries to reduce the overall level of expenditure in what was becoming an outmoded confrontation which fortunately, eventually came to an end," says Hunter. "It limited certain kinds of equipment, particularly the expensive, heavy stuff like artillery and tanks, and also said that if forces would move from place 'X' to place 'Y', notice had to be given to others."

Wade Boese, from the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says the CFE treaty led to the destruction of more than 60-thousand pieces of heavy conventional weaponry. Boese says the treaty had another key component. "In addition, it established a very significant transparency regime which enabled the countries to inspect each other's bases and be informed of force deployments and any kind of change in the structure of the forces. So it really took a lot of the guesswork out of military planning," says Boese. "It introduced a lot more predictability and confidence and stability about what the other side was doing. So you avoided worst-case analysis and estimates that tended to lead to exaggerated views of the other side's capability and thus leading to increases in your own forces which were unnecessary."

But on July 1, 1991 -- less than eight months after the CFE treaty was signed -- the Warsaw Pact collapsed. And in December of that year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In November 1999, the CFE state parties got together and decided to amend the treaty to reflect current reality. The so-called "adapted treaty" imposed limits on the number of conventional weapons each country could have, as opposed to the earlier agreement imposing limits on the two military blocs -- NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

An Uncertain Future

However, experts say the treaty is in limbo because it cannot enter into force until all the current 30 states sign and ratify the revised agreement. Boese says to date only four have done so -- Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

"The NATO countries are withholding ratification because they say that Russia has not fulfilled commitments to withdraw its military forces from Georgia and Moldova, which it promised to do at the same time that the treaty was adapted in 1999. So NATO is conditioning ratification upon Russian withdrawal from Moldova and Georgia, which has not happened," says Boese. "Russia has made significant progress in withdrawing from Georgia - - there remain about 200 forces in Georgia. In Moldova, there has been less progress; the effort actually stalled in about 2004. There are approximately 1,200 Russian troops left in Moldova and a huge stockpile or depot of ammunition that is being guarded by those troops."

Russian officials have consistently called on NATO to ratify the adapted CFE treaty. And they have rejected the link between ratification of the accord and Moscow's troops in Georgia and Moldova. To show his displeasure with the NATO stance, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced in April a moratorium on compliance with the pact. And just last month [November 30], he signed a law suspending Russia's participation in the CFE effective December 12th.

Experts say it is unclear what suspension actually means. They say Russia could end data exchanges with NATO and prevent on-site inspections of its military bases.

Jason Lyall, a Russia expert with Princeton University, says Russia could now move troops into two key regions. "Under the amended CFE treaty, Russia has severe restrictions on the movement and number of troops in two regions: one in the Leningrad area, what is known as 'the Leningrad district' right around St. Petersburg. And the second, which is known as 'the flank' in the south Caucasus, and the number of troops and forces that can be held there is actually quite low. But these are where Russia sees the two of the clearest threats, because of the Baltic States now being members of NATO and they have not ratified the CFE so it allows NATO to station forces there. Russia would like to move troops to position against NATO there, and as well into the Caucasus where you still have a severe insurgency going on, not just in Chechnya now, but in Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, they would like to bring more forces down in the region to help use them as counterinsurgency forces. So this would certainly have implications for where Russia could move troops within the country," says Lyall.

Some experts say the movement of Russian troops -- especially to the country's borders -- brings back ominous memories of the Cold War, memories that come at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are not good.