In his annual state of the union speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested April 26 that Russia should suspend implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe until all NATO members ratify it. In real terms, this means next to nothing — but as a message to Europe, it has clear significance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made explicit reference to a moratorium on the implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) in his annual state of the union address April 26. Later that day, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov confirmed the statement. Like the strategic arms treaties before it, the CFE 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. The CFE now stands as the foundation of modern European security in the post-Cold War era. The treaty stands as that foundation because of its effective implementation in 1995. At that point, both NATO and the former Warsaw Pact countries destroyed or converted a total of some 50,000 combat vehicles — actually in excess of treaty requirements. The CFE thus ended the massive quantitative advantage in conventional ground combat forces the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies held in Europe for essentially the entire Cold War. In 1996, additional provisions were adopted. Most significant were several "flank" provisions designed to prevent Russian forces from massing in regions that would endanger Norway or Turkey. Russia has yet to fulfill these obligations, although it has made slow moves in that direction. On the NATO side, Slovenia and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have yet to sign the treaty; they all joined the alliance after the CFE was signed.
These two issues — Russia's failure to fulfill its obligations and the fact that four NATO members have not yet signed the CFE — were not resolved in 2006 when the signatories met for a third review of the treaty. Of course, Russian forces in Georgia and Moldova, which are not supposed to be there according to the treaty's newer provisions, are not destabilizing Europe. Furthermore, though Russia might like a signed and sealed deal formally prohibiting large numbers of NATO troops in the Baltic states — essentially a stone's throw away from the Russian heartland — Moscow will hardly leave its security regarding the Baltics to a piece of paper. In other words, these are minor issues. As such, they have been treated as tangential and remain unresolved but have almost no real effect on the stability and security of post-Cold War Europe. Meanwhile, the quality of Russian ground forces has only eroded since the original treaty was implemented. Russia is not about to start manufacturing vast numbers of tanks per year; the Russians must first maintain the tanks they have and exercise their existing tank crews. A fraction of Russia's limit on main battle tanks is made up of modern T-80 series and T-90 tanks — of which Russia has fewer than 5,000. There is almost no chance of a substantial abrogation of the CFE in the near future in terms of massive new columns of Russian armor. However, the mere idea of massive new columns of Russian armor has no small effect on the minds of Western and Central European states. Putin's statement regarding the CFE might be heavy on rhetoric and light on fact, but it is a clear indicator of Russia's attitude toward its former client states. Thus, while a real, meaningful breach of the CFE is almost certainly out of the question, the tanks Russia has today — just the modern tanks in prime condition — are more than enough to intimidate Russia's European neighbors.