US, NATO Follow Russia in Dropping Out of Europe Arms Treaty

Washington and NATO allies said Tuesday they will echo Russia’s suspension of a Cold War treaty to limit conventional arms proliferation in Europe, with the White House saying it had “no option” but to leave.  

Nonproliferation advocates said this won’t make a huge impact on the battlefield.

Suspending the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) “will strengthen the [NATO] Alliance’s deterrence and defense capacity by removing restrictions that impact planning, deployments, and exercises — restrictions that no longer bind Russia after Moscow’s withdrawal,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.  

Treaty set limits

The 1990 treaty was designed to prevent either side of the post-Cold War power structure — at the time, NATO and the former Soviet Warsaw Pact — from being able to amass forces for a flash offensive. 

It also set equal limits on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters it applied in the territory between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. 

John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, said the U.S. had no better option but to pull out.  

“I don’t know how we could justify not pulling out of it, given that the Russians have decided unilaterally to just throw it in the trash heap,” he said. “They left the United States and our NATO allies with no choice but to cease our accommodations and compliance with the treaty, as well.” 

VOA asked if this decision could lead to NATO allies increasing the footprint of conventional weapons in Ukraine.  

“As for future force posture, I certainly won’t talk about that from this podium,” he said.  

NATO, which had criticized Russia’s June announcement to pull out, defended its decision to do the same. In a statement, the 31-member security alliance said they all support suspending their participation “for as long as necessary. ” 

“Russia’s withdrawal is the latest in a series of actions that systematically undermines Euro-Atlantic security,” NATO said in a statement. “Russia continues to demonstrate disregard for arms control, including key principles of reciprocity, transparency, compliance, verification, and host nation consent, and undermines the rules-based international order. While recognizing the role of the CFE as a cornerstone of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, a situation whereby Allied States Parties abide by the Treaty, while Russia does not, would be unsustainable.” 

“The Treaty’s core objective, namely to ensure a balanced conventional forces potential in Europe, cannot be achieved without Russia,” Germany’s government said in a Tuesday statement explaining its decision.  

Russia calls treaty ‘vestige of the past’

Russia gave its 150-day notice of withdrawal in June, arguing that the treaty, forged in the ashes of the Cold War, was obsolete. It also said the “last straw” for the decision was NATO’s decision to welcome Finland and Sweden — both nonsignatories to the treaty — into the pact. Finland borders Russia, and Moscow expressed concerns that it could be used by third countries to amass weapons along Russia’s northwestern border. 

“It is clear that, in today’s conditions, the CFE has definitely become a vestige of the past,” the Russian government said in a statement. “Our opponents should not have any illusions about Russia returning to the CFE compliance.” 

Both U.S. parties agree on suspension

The U.S. decision was applauded by both parties, said U.S. Senators Ben Cardin, a Democrat, and Jim Risch, a Republican. Both sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

“This is an opportunity to reassess our force posture in Europe to ensure we are ready to deter any Russian threats against U.S. national security interests, including against our NATO allies and other regional partners,” they said in a joint statement.  

But security and nonproliferation experts say this won’t make much difference.  

“Russia stopped implementing the CFE treaty way back around 2007,” John Erath, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told VOA. “So, the implications are pretty much zero. … The treaty has been dead for many years, and this is just further acknowledgment that it is so.” 

Pal Dunay, a professor of NATO and European security issues at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, agreed in an analysis he wrote when Russia issued its decision.  

“Russia’s decision to formally withdraw from the CFE Treaty will not make much difference on the ground,” he wrote.    

But, Erath noted, one important thing will now change: Under the treaty, signatories were required to send each other annual reports with detailed information on their conventional forces. Russia, he said, did not comply with that requirement, but was receiving the information from the other signatories.    

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