Up Front

Conventional Arms Control in Europe—a Victim of its Own Success?

Steven Pifer

On June 25, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — made up of representatives from 56 member states from Europe and Central Asia, plus the United States and Canada — met with non-governmental experts to discuss the security challenges facing Europe today. I was invited to participate and discuss conventional arms, an area where success may well be endangering part of the European arms control regime. (See the below video for more on this.)


Conventional arms control in Europe can be broken into two parts.  One is confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs), such as notifications of military activities, invitations to observe exercises and exchanges of information on military forces.  OSCE and its forerunner, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, have a nearly 40-year-long record of success in this area, including in the Helsinki Final Act, the Stockholm Document, the Open Skies Treaty and the Vienna Document (which has been updated).  While there have been some bumps in implementation, the various CSBMs are working fairly well, making military forces and activities more transparent and minimizing the chance of miscalculation.

The second part is the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty regime. Originally negotiated between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, it is not doing well. In fact, it’s on life support, with some analysts asking whether it is time to pull the plug.

What’s the problem?  The CFE Treaty was signed in 1990—shortly before the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the Soviet Union collapsed. The treaty’s bloc-to-bloc limits on key items of conventional military power (such as tanks) made increasingly less sense as former Warsaw Pact members joined NATO. The Adapted CFE Treaty, signed in 1999, did away with bloc limits and replaced them with limits on individual state holdings of military equipment.  However, due to Russia’s failure to live up to political commitments it made when the treaty was signed, NATO members did not ratify the adapted treaty.

In 2008, Moscow “suspended” its observance of the original CFE Treaty. (The treaty makes no provision for “suspension,” but NATO chose not to make that an issue.) Although Russia has remained below the treaty’s limits, it has ceased providing information and allowing inspections required by the treaty. After nearly four years of trying to persuade Moscow to come back into compliance, NATO members announced that they were suspending CFE Treaty obligations with regard to Russia. OSCE has explored how the CFE Treaty regime might be restored to life but, so far, without success.

It is difficult to see OSCE succeeding in the future. The CFE Treaty was phenomenally useful at reducing military equipment, resulting in the elimination of some 70,000 tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces, attack helicopters and combat aircraft. What the CFE Treaty started, declining defense budgets are continuing. Virtually all NATO member states are cutting defense spending, and that will mean fewer items of military equipment in the future. While Russia seeks to modernize its conventional forces over the coming ten years, the past two decades witnessed a huge decline in Russian conventional military power. 

These military reductions are good news. The possibilities for large-scale offensive military operations in Europe have been dramatically reduced. No one has the capability for the kind of operations that NATO planners feared during the Cold War.

But there is some bad news. With force levels so low, few seem to care much about preserving the CFE Treaty regime. Why should Moscow worry? NATO force numbers are going down. The CFE Treaty allows the United States to have up to 4,000 tanks in Europe, but the current number is around 90—and that is headed for zero. Given that Russian conventional power is a shadow of what the Soviets had during the Cold War, NATO members don’t seem to worry much either. Washington made a push in 2010-2011 to salvage the treaty regime, but the United States sits across the Atlantic from Europe. There is no evidence that senior political leaders in Berlin, Paris or Rome have spent any capital with Moscow to keep the regime going.

CSBMs will continue to operate, and that’s a plus for transparency, confidence and security in Europe.  But the CFE Treaty regime’s future looks dismal.

For more information, see Pifer’s

June 25 presentation to the OSCE

on key questions to consider regarding conventional arms control and CSBMs in Europe.

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