Written by Matilde Castoldi
Edited by Alex Marchan
Supervised by Cansu Macit Karaduman
The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) has been one of the cornerstones of European security for the last thirty years. Negotiated during the twilight years of the Cold War, and signed on 19 November 1990, it was a landmark security treaty. The CFE entered into force on 13 July 1992 and aimed to limit the number of conventional arms—battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters—of State Parties (Art 4(1) CFE, 1990). The Treaty was particularly important as it addressed the core dilemmas of the security context of the time; although the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the context was very much dominated by bloc tensions between the Warsaw Pact states and NATO (Witkowsky et al., 2010). At the time it entered into force, it “adapted to the changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and contributed predictability and transparency in military forces as Europe was transforming throughout the 1990s” (Witkowsky et al., 2010).
On 7 November 2023, Russia announced its formal withdrawal from the Treaty (Faulconbridge et al., 2023). Although it had already “suspended” its implementation of the CFE in December 2007, and halted active participation in 2015 (Witkowsky et al., 2010), Putin’s move to formally withdraw represents a significant hit to European security. The Russian foreign ministry said that the “CFE Treaty was concluded at the end of the Cold War, when the formation of a new architecture of global and European security based on cooperation seemed possible, and appropriate attempts were made” (Faulconbridge et al., 2023). Critics of the Treaty argue that while it was of critical importance during the post-Cold War period, it is of little relevance today (Witkowsky et al., 2010)—given Russia’s withdrawal, it will soon be evident whether this is true.
As noted by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, “with this step Russia has revoked and walked away from every major arms control treaty” (Stoltenberg, 2023). In fact, Putin suspended Russia’s participation in the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, commonly known as the New START Treaty in February of 2023. This treaty entered into force in 2011 and was extended in 2021 for five years, by an agreement between Russia and the US (Xiouri, 2023). This Treaty, like the CFE, aimed to reduce and limit the Contracting Parties’ strategic offensive arms (Art 1(1) New START, 2010).
Although arms control should never and can never be an end in itself, it is an indispensable tool to help address the core dilemmas of the security context from which it grows by placing “negotiated constraints” on the contracting parties (Witkowsky et al., 2010). As a response to Russia pulling out of the CFE, NATO Allied State Parties, too, are suspending their participation in the CFE, a decision which is “fully supported by all NATO Allies” (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2023). Thus, amidst “an unprovoked, illegal and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine” (Benelux, 2023), Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the CFE is the most recent in a string of “Russian actions [which] are once more leading to a further deterioration of the broader security architecture in Europe” (Benelux, 2023).
In 1990, the CFE’s signature represented a significant part in the herculean effort made to fulfil Europe’s wish for transparency and a stable security environment. Thirty-three years later, Russia’s formal withdrawal from the CFE is the latest move in a slow, brick by brick dismantling of this effort.
Benelux. (2023, November 7). Benelux Statement on the suspension of the operation of the CFE Treaty. https://diplomatie.belgium.be/en/news/benelux-statement-suspension-operation-cfe-treaty
Faulconbridge, G., Kelly, L., & Faulconbridge, G. (2023, November 7). Russia Formally Withdraws from Key Post-Cold War European Armed Forces Treaty. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-formally-withdraws-key-post-cold-war-european-armed-forces-treaty-2023-11-07/
North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2023, November 7). North Atlantic Council statement on the Allied response to Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_219811.htm
Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), (2010).
Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), (1990).
Stoltenberg, J. (2023, November 9). Joint press statements by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with the Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_219804.htm?selectedLocale=en
Witkowsky, A., Garnett, S., & McCausland, J. (2010, March). Salvaging the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty Regime: Options for Washington. Foreign Policy at Brookings; Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/03_armed_forces_europe_treaty.pdf
Xiouri, M. (2023, March 17). On the “Suspension” of the New START Treaty by Russia. EJIL: Talk! https://www.ejiltalk.org/on-the-suspension-of-the-new-start-treaty-by-russia/