Monday, 18 April 2011

The Potential Demise of the CFE Treaty: a Major Concern for Turkey

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By Richard Weitz (vol. 4, no. 8 of the Turkey Analyst)

Moscow’s decision to “suspend” its compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty since December 2007 now remains one of the few visible sources of tension in the otherwise significantly improved relationship between Turkey and Russia. Yet, like other NATO countries, Turkey has sought not to bury the CFE but to praise and revive it. Turkish officials are calling for further negotiations and mutual concessions in order to restore the treaty framework. Perhaps the most immediate concern behind Turkish unease at the potential demise of the CFE regime is that it could worsen tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

BACKGROUND: Turkish strategic thinkers have traditionally seen their country as surrounded by unstable, potentially hostile geographic regions. Turkish foreign and defense policy has sought to reduce this instability—and ideally transform Turkey’s pivotal geopolitical position from that of a liability into an advantage. In this context, the landmark CFE Treaty has served as a tool to dampen security tensions in some of these regions by enhancing defense transparency and establishing other confidence-building measures.

The CFE Treaty established a sophisticated system of monitoring, inspections, and verification of the military deployments and activities of its State Parties. The treaty, which entered into force in 1992, set ceilings of five categories of “heavy” conventional weapons in the geographic zone extending from the Atlantic to the Urals. Besides the limits on the permissible number of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, and helicopters—which were converted from bloc to national restrictions in 1999—the treaty imposed additional ceilings on the number of allowable “active” units in each category. It also created several regional “flank zones,” most notably along northwest and southwest Russia, and established an extensive system of military confidence-building measures that have helped eliminate the possibility of large-scale surprise attacks in Europe.

Yet, NATO’s expansion and Moscow’s continued military deployments outside Russia have led to mutual accusations that the other party is violating the treaty. Western governments accuse Moscow of failing to carry out its commitments, made by then-President Boris Yeltsin at the November 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, to withdraw all Russian military forces and equipment from the former Soviet military bases in Georgia and Moldova.

On December 12, 2007, the Russian government “suspended” its participation in the CFE Treaty due to “exceptional circumstances” that jeopardized Russia’s “national interests in the sphere of military security.”  The effect of the suspension, an option not even provided for in the original 1990 treaty, has been that Moscow has not provided information about the size, location, and activities of its military forces west of the Ural Mountains, the Russian territory covered by the treaty, for more than three years. Another consequence has been that security concerns in countries located near Russia, especially Turkey, have been exacerbated.

In fact, tensions between Turkey and Russia arose almost as soon as the CFE treaty entered into force since the Russian government quickly exceeded its southern flank limits by deploying additional military forces in the South Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia) and North Caucasus (especially Chechnya) after the Russian military intervened to suppress the separatist forces there. Russian authorities said that the CFE limits applied only under "normal" conditions, which did not exist.  Although the government of Turkey, like those of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, considered the surge of Russian forces in their neighborhood unsettling, they were forced to tolerate them since the other CFE parties were unwilling to confront Russia on the issue. Many of Ankara’s NATO allies declined to press Moscow on CFE since they were eager to secure Russian acceptance of NATO’s enlargement.   

Despite these concessions, Russian officials pressed for more permanent relaxation of the flank limits in the treaty. Nonetheless, the overall improvement in Russia-Turkey relations during the past decade has made this issue less salient.  Then the Russian suspension decision, soon followed by the Russia-Georgia War and the upswing of Islamist militancy in the North Caucasus, alarmed the Turks about their regional security situation and catalyzed several initiatives, as discussed in the August 29, 2008 issue of theTurkey Analyst.

IMPLICATIONS: Moscow’s decision to “suspend” its compliance with the CFE Treaty since December 2007 now remains one of the few visible sources of tension in the otherwise significantly improved relationship between Turkey and Russia. At the time of the suspension decision, an official in the Turkish Foreign Ministry disputed Moscow’s assertion that Russia needed to increase its defenses along its southwestern border to counter terrorism: “Russia claims it is facing a terrorism threat and cannot deal with it properly due to the restrictions imposed on it by the Treaty. We have told the Russians that we cannot see any immediate terrorism threat directed toward them.” The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the Russian suspension decision “particularly perplexing” given the “multidimensional dialogue” that Turkey and other NATO governments had conducted with Russia, which offered “a constructive way forward that would preserve the integrity of the Treaty with all its elements including the Flank regime, and would allow the ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty responding to Russian concerns.”

The importance of the treaty as a form of security reassurance between Turkey and Russia was evident in the number of their mutual inspections. At the time Russia suspended its involvement in the CFE inspections, the Russian Federation had conducted 92 inspections in Turkey, more than any other party. And of the 162 inspections conducted by Turkey as of December 2007, 57 were in Russia, and 25 more were of the Russian military units in Armenia and Georgia.

Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs still characterized the CFE Treaty “the cornerstone” of Europe’s security architecture. The government has supported the “parallel actions package” proposed by NATO as the means to restore the CFE regime and bring the adapted treaty into force.  The Ministry affirms that, “Turkey supports the position of the NATO Alliance that the ratification process on the adapted CFE cannot start unless Russia fulfils entirely the Istanbul commitments on Georgia and Moldova.”

At the June 2009 OSCE Annual Security Review Conference, the Turkish Ambassador to the OSCE, Yusuf Buluç, called the CFE Treaty a “unique and irreplaceable…compendium of measures to build confidence and a wide array of tools crucial for early warning, conflict prevention and resolution as well as crisis management.” Alluding to Moscow’s suspension, Ambassador Buluc added that, for the sake of European security, “We have to do much better by rededicating ourselves to the principles of common security and to fulfilling our commitments.” He said that Moscow’s suspension of its CFE obligations has led “to its progressive corrosion, the gradual diminishing of the relevance of the measures prescribed in the Vienna Document, [and] a lessening reliance and political will to apply decisively and effectively the tools for conflict prevention, displayed so alarmingly lately in the South Caucasus across our borders” as well as “a severe shortage of mutual trust and confidence.”

Many critics of Moscow’s action argue that, since the CFE contains no provision for a “suspension,” the Russian government has effectively abrogated the treaty by violating its provisions. This position can also be supported by pointing to Russia’s deployment of a higher level than permitted by the CFE of conventional forces in its southwestern flank.  Yet, like other NATO countries, Turkey has sought not to bury the CFE but to praise and revive it. Turkey has also sought to strengthen other OSCE-related security measures.

At the December 2009 OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, while not explicitly naming Russia, made clear his irritation with Moscow’s suspension policy: “The arms control and confidence and security building measures are the OSCE’s unique and fundamental contribution to the security and stability of Europe. It is essential to preserve and implement these arrangements. Unfortunately, the CFE Treaty is at present suspended by one State Party. The continued suspension erodes and invalidates this landmark regime.”  Davutoğlu then noted how the Russia-Georgia War “has demonstrated the necessity of maintaining strong international security mechanisms, in particular those designed to provide transparency and stability through a system of regional and sub-regional limitations on conventional armaments.”

Nonetheless, Ankara is not eager to see NATO members or other States Parties retaliate in kind, which could easily lead to the treaty’s collapse. Instead, Turkish officials have called for further negotiations and mutual concessions in order to restore the treaty framework: “We call upon all partners to redouble their efforts to restore the viability of the CFE regime and to avoid any further actions, which would result in its erosion.”

The Turkish government has sought to strengthen related OSCE and other European security processes regardless of the Russian CFE suspension. These include proposals to improve the implementation of the 1999 Vienna Document, the Open Skies Treaty, and additional CSBMs. ”However, like other governments, Turkish representatives recognize “that the legally binding provisions of the CFE Treaty cannot be replaced with politically binding commitments, nor can their loss be compensated through reinforcing other instruments such as the 1999 Vienna Document.”

CONCLUSIONS: Although a military confrontation between Turkey and Russia is improbable, long-term rivalry cannot be excluded and Turkey certainly would like to keep Russian military power in its vicinity within reasonable bounds.  

Turkish officials have found the OSCE-CFE framework for Europe so useful that they have joined with other states, especially Kazakhstan, and sought to extend the CFE concepts to Asia in the form of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA). Turkey holds the CICA chairmanship for the years 2010-2012 and has developed an ambitious action plan, though tensions with Israel and between other Asian countries have thus far limited its implementation.

Perhaps the most immediate concern behind Turkish unease at the potential demise of the CFE regime is that it could worsen tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although Turks sympathize with Azerbaijan, and are therefore unenthusiastic about Russia’s extensive military support to Armenia, Turkish diplomacy has striven to end this conflict.  Elements in both Armenia and Azerbaijan are eager to re-arm beyond the levels permitted by the CFE Treaty. Already substantial unaccounted-for equipment is present in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh contested by both countries.  If Armenia and Azerbaijan decide the CFE quota limits no longer apply, Turkey could experience a full-scale arms race in a neighboring region already primed for conflict.

Richard Weitz, Ph.D., Senior Fellow and Director,  Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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