The CFE Treaty: The latest European arms control domino to fall

11 November 2023

NATO allies condemned Russia’s withdrawal on 7 November from the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), a key post-Cold War agreement, and said they would suspend its operation in response.

On 9 June, Russia notified the other states parties to the CFE Treaty that it was leaving the accord, triggering a 150-day notice of withdrawal period. On 7 November that period expired and Russia formally withdrew from the treaty.

In a statement Russia's Foreign Ministry said that the treaty which placed verifiable limits on key categories of conventional armed forces was now "history". It blamed the US and its allies for their “destructive stance” on the treaty. “By suspending the CFE Treaty, Russia left the door open for a dialogue on ways to restore the viability of conventional arms control in Europe”, it said. “However, our opponents did not take this opportunity and continued to base their policies on anti-Russian bloc principles rather than cooperation”. The Ministry said that “even the formal preservation” of the treaty has become “unacceptable from the point of view of Russia’s core security interests”, citing developments in Ukraine and NATO’s recent expansion.

Just hours after Russia pulled out, the US and NATO also froze their participation in the treaty, renewing questions about the future of arms control agreements in Europe.

In a statement NATO said “Russia's withdrawal is the latest in a series of actions that systematically undermines Euro-Atlantic security” and that action by its signatory members was required because “a situation whereby Allied State Parties abide by the Treaty, while Russia does not, would be unsustainable”. NATO said its members remain committed “to reduce military risk, and prevent misperceptions and conflicts”. It said the alliance will continue to “consult on and assess the implications of the current security environment and its impact on the security” of the Euro-Atlantic region.

The United States said it would suspend treaty obligations effective from 7 December. Russia’s war against Ukraine and its withdrawal from the treaty “fundamentally altered” circumstances related to it and transformed participants’ obligations, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said. Suspending the obligations by Washington and its allies will strengthen NATO’s “deterrence and defense capacity by removing restrictions that impact planning, deployments, and exercises -– restrictions that no longer bind Russia after Moscow’s withdrawal”, he added. Sullivan also said that despite Moscow’s continued disregard for arms control, the United States and its allies will remain committed to effective conventional arms control.

The German Foreign Ministry emphasised in a statement that Berlin and its allies are not pulling out of the treaty. “Should Russia change its conduct, the CFE Treaty can be re-implemented”, it said. The ministry also said that Germany intends to stick to the national limits for weapons systems in the treaty.

The CFE Treaty was designed to prevent either side of the Cold War from amassing forces for a swift offensive against the other in Europe. When it was signed, the CFE envisaged weapons limits for the Warsaw Pact and NATO, but the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist shortly after it was signed. Unsuccessful attempts were made to renegotiate its conditions. Russia suspended participation in the treaty in 2007 and halted active participation in 2015.

The treaty was one of several major arms control treaties involving Russia and the United States that has been demolished in recent years. Earlier in November, President Putin signed a bill revoking Russia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a move that he said was needed to establish parity with the United States. In February, with US-Russia tensions running high over Ukraine, Moscow suspended its participation in the New START Treaty, the last arms control pact that remains between the two countries. Both countries also pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, blaming each other for violations.

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said on 8 November that shifting responsibility for the destruction of international security architecture was a “favourite practice” of Washington. “With the decision to withdraw, Russia sends a clear signal – attempts to build military security in Europe without taking into account our concerns are doomed to failure,” Antonov said on the embassy’s Telegram channel.