Why is Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces suspended? IPN debate

Two important things happened in Moldova’s security and defense sector last week. They happened almost simultaneously and their visibility and importance increased therefore. On the one hand, the Cabinet approved a decision announcing Moldova’s intention to suspend the country’s obligations under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which was signed 34 years ago in Paris. On the other hand, also in Paris, Moldova last week signed an agreement on defense cooperation with France. For about a week since then, there have been various reactions to these events: from determined approval to equally determined condemnation, from excitement to concern and even fear about the possible effects of these actions. What these actions imply, what possible benefits and risks for Moldovan society they can generate and why public opinion is so divided were among the issues discussed by the experts invited to IPN’s public debate “Why is the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces suspended?”.

The permanent expert of IPN’s project Igor Boțan said that conventional weapons are weapons that are not banned by international conventions, i.e. they are weapons that do not use nuclear, chemical or biological energy to function. Instead, they use mechanical, electrical or chemical means to produce their effect. The term has been used since 1949, when the first international convention to this effect was signed in Geneva. “Unconventional weapons are those in the list of weapons prohibited by conventions, such as explosive bullets, chemical/bacteriological weapons, etc. The conventional armed forces are put into five main categories of armaments and equipment called conventional, respectively – battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters,” explained the expert.

According to him, the arms race represents one of the most serious threats to humanity through the development of increasingly evolving destruction capacities. Although they should be a guarantee for the security of the world, weapons and various military equipment in the hands of irrational leaders or actors continue to be a factor of profound insecurity.

As for international treaties, Igor Boțan stressed that most of them refer to the non-proliferation of nuclear, ballistic and conventional weapons. There are 10 such treaties and some of them are no longer in force. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was approved by the UN General Assembly on June 12, 1968 and opened for signature on July 1, 1968, and it entered into force on March 5, 1970. On May 26, 1972, the Treaty on the Limitation of Antiballistic Missile Defense Systems was signed in Moscow, and on May 26, 1972, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) was signed in Moscow. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) was signed on June 18, 1979 in Vienna, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed on December 8, 1987 in Washington. This was followed by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) which was signed on November 19, 1990 in Paris, and also by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty START-I, then START-II, START-III, etc.

At the same time, says the expert, in 1999, at the Istanbul OSCE Summit, an updated version of the CFE Treaty was signed, taking into account the new conditions (dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and enlargement of NATO). But the subsequent trends were such that, for example, in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the decree “On the suspension by the Russian Federation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the related international treaties”, and in May 2023, the President of the Russian Federation signed a law denouncing the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe,” stated Igor Boțan.

Former Minister of Defense Vitalie Marinuța said that as regards the 1990 Treaty, the possibility of signing it appeared starting with 1985, when the relations between the Soviet Union and the US-led North Atlantic Alliance began to heat. At the time, U.S. President George Bush said that a new era more secure in the quest for peace could emerge. 

“The context was that both the socialist camp and NATO were predisposed to work to stop the arms race. It was agreed to limit the conventional weapons so that there would be no possibility for a rapid invasion and that there would be no necessary technique at hand. The goal was to make sure the balance of forces was equal especially because, at that time, the Soviet Union had much larger forces concentrated in this part of Europe than the NATO countries in Europe. It was decided to set a restricted area – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains, the Caspian Sea. It was also agreed to work on five basic types of weapons – tanks, armored vehicles, heavy artillery, fighter jets and helicopters,” explained the former defense minister.

Vitalie Marinuța noted that the 1990 Treaty stipulated certain limitations, such as 40,000 tanks, 60,000 armored vehicles, around 40,000 artillery units. “Bulgaria, Romania and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics joined the Warsaw Pact. From the Soviet Union, geographically speaking, the military districts – Transcaucasian, Leningrad, North-Caucasian and Odessa district, where the Republic of Moldova was practically present - fell under the scope of this Treaty. On the NATO side, geographically there were Greece, Iceland, Norway, and Turkey. 4,700 tanks, 5,900 armored vehicles and around 6,000 artillery installations were allowed for NATO,” said the ex-minister noted.

According to him, Moldova, after becoming an independent country, like other republics of the Soviet Union, signed this Treaty. “As a result, we were also allocated a permitted quota of conventional weapons. If we speak purely technically, we were allowed around 210 battle tanks. So, we have none, but could have 210 so that those who say that Moldova is arming itself also know this. No, Moldova simply had nothing. Being a neutral country, we had the right, according to this Treaty, to own 210 tanks, 210 armored vehicles, 130 combat vehicles with heavy weapons, 250 artillery units and even combat aircraft – maximum 50 units,” said Vitalie Marinuța.

Pavel Horea, security expert of WatchDog.md Community, believes that the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, signed on November 19, 1990 in Paris, started to experience problems right from the signing. In the preamble to that agreement, it was noted that the States undertake to renounce the threat or use of force against other States. But then conflicts in the former Soviet space emerged and the Russian Federation also participated in them and that was already a violation of this treaty. Respectively, shortcomings appeared from the very beginning.

“Because the 1990 agreement was between two blocs, and a state of this bloc was practically disintegrated, it had to be renegotiated. Respectively, in 1999 an additional agreement to the Treaty was signed in Istanbul. There were new signatories already - the Russian Federation as a separate entity, the NATO bloc with the states that joined it. Under those provisions, it was the Russian Federation that benefited because it was allowed to return a part of the military combat equipment – aircraft, helicopters - to reposition them again in its districts westward the Urals. According to the 1990 agreement, a large part of the military equipment had to be transferred over the Ural Mountains,” said the expert.

According to him, after 1999 there were a number of states that signed the additional agreement, but refused to ratify this agreement in their parliaments. “We saw later how other states, such as Georgia, Ukraine, refused to ratify this additional agreement in Parliament, namely because Russia didn’t fully comply with the agreement. Here, we are already talking about a political game in which the Republic of Moldova and other states that had ties with the Russian Federation strived to use this agreement to obtain certain levers in influencing decisions. After 1999, Russia began to put more pressure on the states that were to be part of the NATO bloc, especially the Baltic states that joined NATO and refused to ratify this agreement. This gave Russia the opportunity to start talks in light of the problem that the agreement didn’t work because particular states hadn’t ratified it and it wasn’t respected by NATO and the member countries,” said Pavel Horea.

The expert noted that in 2007, as a result of growing tensions, Russia suspended this Treaty. The invasion of Georgia and other actions followed and practically destroyed this agreement because the states saw that it didn’t work as states were invaded. Respectively, it was no longer seen as a necessity for the states to reduce their military equipment, soldiers because this didn’t bring security. “After 2014, it can be said that this agreement was no longer functional in any form, even if some of the states were signatories. After the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, this agreement became null and void. Respectively, other states, including the Republic of Moldova, didn’t see the reason for being part of this Treaty because a main signatory violated the provisions and unilaterally withdrew from it,” stated Pavel Horea.

The public debate entitled “Why is the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces suspended?” was the 302nd instalment of IPN’s project “Developing political culture through public debates”, which is carried out with the support of the German Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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