Russian President Vladimir Putin approved his country's suspension of its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe
(CFE) Treaty on Nov. 30, to take effect Dec. 12. The move had long been anticipated, given that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov declared a moratorium on participation May 23
. The lower house of the Russian legislature, the Duma, approved the suspension measure Nov. 7, followed by the upper house Nov. 16 — both unanimously, and at Putin's behest. Like the strategic arms treaties before it, the CFE, signed in 1990, sought to cap force levels — in this case, tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters rather than missiles and deliverable warheads. Europeans, of course, are the most concerned with the CFE, as it was considered a major step toward reducing the chances of another major conventional war in Europe. By 1995, some 50,000 combat vehicles had been destroyed or converted by NATO and former Warsaw Pact countries — actually in excess of treaty requirements — and the pact had become the cornerstone of the European security architecture. However, the dynamics of the Cold War that drove NATO and the Warsaw Pact to sign CFE no longer exist. Indeed, most of the former Warsaw Pact states are now NATO members. Like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
(INF), CFE no longer serves the purpose it once did — especially for Moscow. Regardless, CFE has been in full effect for more than a decade, although the treaty was revised in 1999 to reflect the new European order. Issues remain, however, about ratification on the NATO side and violations of force levels in Georgia and Moldova's separatist region of Transdniestria on the Russian side. But the 50,000 pieces of combat hardware removed from the equation in 1995 are not about to reappear. Russia is not in a position to start cranking out thousands of tanks per year, and even should it chose to begin disregarding CFE limits somewhere that matters — not just Georgia and Transdniestria — it is a long way from doing so in a way that fundamentally alters the current security dynamic in the region. However, if Putin continues to move forward with the suspension and even withdrawal from CFE, he burns bridges
with Europe. The mere idea of massive columns of Russian armor has no small effect in Western and Central European states, and withdrawal from CFE will rile many in Europe. As a result, European and NATO security policy will be shifted accordingly. It remains unclear whether Putin is using the suspension for political gains at home and abroad or whether he really intends to begin ignoring the treaty's limits. However, a truly bellicose Russia is the one thing that can truly unify Europe — and in such a scenario, the nexus of that unity will be NATO, where Washington's influence is strongest. No matter how bellicose Russia gets, it is hard to see 50,000 pieces of CFE-governed combat hardware returning to the north European plain. But before there can be any meaningful military shift, there will be far more stark political shifts in Europe consistent with long-term strategic thinking reminiscent of the Soviet Union era.