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Russia seeks to reassert itself on the world stage

Vladimir Radyuhin


Russia’s suspension of the CFE Treaty signals its resolve to reconfigure the post-Cold War shift in the balance of power in favour of the U.S.


Russia is suspending its participation in Europe’s most important arms control pact. On Friday, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that freezes Russia’s compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. The law, unanimously approved by Russia’s Parliament, will come into effect on December 13.

The suspension of the CFE treaty, which limits the deployment of tanks, aircraft, and other heavy weapons across the continent, signals Russia’s resolve to reconfigure the post-Cold War shift in the balance of power in favour of the United States. It is in line with a new hard line towards the West that Mr. Putin set forth in his speech in Munich earlier this year. “The unipolar model of the world is not only unacceptable, but also unrealisable because in today’s world nobody has enough political or economic resources to enforce it,” he said while addressing a security forum in Munich in February.

The CFE Treaty underlined Russia’s position as the Cold War loser. Signed in 1990, the Treaty was designed to eliminate a 2-to-1 superiority of the Warsaw Pact forces over the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Europe. But with the Warsaw Pact dissolved a few months later, followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the CFE Treaty effectively amounted to Russia’s unilateral disarmament. Russia accounted for the bulk of the 60,000 armoured vehicles, heavy artillery, and aircraft destroyed in keeping with the limits the CFE Treaty set on the number of heavy weapons and troops the Warsaw Pact countries and NATO forces could deploy.

Nine years later, the CFE treaty was modified replacing force limits for the Eastern and Western blocs with national ceilings for each individual nation and sub-regions of Europe. Even though the 1999 revised treaty addressed some of Russia’s concerns, overall it sealed NATO’s overwhelming superiority over weakened Russia through what its General Staff Chief Yuri Baluyevsky described as “arms twisting.” Even so, Russia has ratified the amended treaty, along with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, but NATO countries have refused to till Russia honours the former President, Boris Yeltsin’s pledge to withdraw military forces from the ex-Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.

Moscow has rejected the link between its bases in Georgia and Moldova and the CFE Treaty. Even so it has since pulled out all its forces from Georgia and a large part from Moldova, but retained military presence in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia and in Moldova’s separatist province of Transdniestr under a peacekeeping mandate from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose organisation of former Soviet republics.

The situation became deadlocked. While Russia brought its forces in line with the amended CFE Treaty, NATO continued to observe the original pact. As far as the 1990 weapon ceilings are concerned, the new members of the Atlantic Alliance — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania — as well as three ex-Soviet Baltic states, are still counted as belonging to the Soviet-led Eastern group of countries. This allows the U.S. and NATO to build up their forces in Eastern Europe as they feel fit.

The last straw

Russia’s patience snapped when the Pentagon announced plans to station 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a high-power targeting radar in the Czech Republic close to Russia’s borders. The U.S. claimed the missile defence stations in Eastern Europe would protect Europe and the U.S. from rocket attacks by Iran and North Korea. Moscow ridiculed the argument and said the U.S. interceptors would target Russian missiles. To show how seriously Russia viewed the issue, Mr. Putin compared the U.S. plans to build missile stations in Eastern Europe to the Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet Union deployed offensive missiles in Cuba in response to U.S. missile deployments in Turkey, close to Soviet borders.

The U.S. insists it has no intention of threatening Russia with its missile interceptors in Europe. But Moscow is no longer prepared to take Washington at its word. In his Munich speech, President Putin recalled that the West had cheated the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, on NATO expansion: “what happened to your 1990 promise that there would be no NATO forces beyond Germany?” he asked.

Mr. Putin may not like to recall it today, but he too was taken in by U.S. promises of post-Cold War friendship in the early stages of his presidency. In the wake of 9/11, he closed Russia’s electronic spy centre in Cuba. Set up after the Cuban crisis in 1964 it was Russia’s largest and most productive spy station. It gave Russia 40 per cent of all intelligence reports on the U.S. and its neighbours.

Washington said the spy centre was the last remaining hurdle to a strategic alliance with Moscow, and Mr. Putin shut it down without asking for anything in return. The U.S. expressed its “thanks” by pushing to expand its foothold in the former Soviet Union through setting up a ring of military bases near Russia’s borders. This taught Mr. Putin a bitter lesson.

“We will not observe any obligations unilaterally,” Mr. Putin said at a meeting with the Russian armed forces senior command last week. “Our partners have not ratified the adapted [CFE] treaty and some have not even signed it.”

Russia said that after December 13 it would not be bound by any CFE weapons limits and would not allow Western on-sight inspections. Moreover, it would push for further amendments to the pact to lift restrictions on military deployments in flank zones.

The CFE Treaty is the first victim of Russia’s new drive to revise the results of the Cold War. Moscow said it could also pull out of another arms control pact — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, negotiated by Mr. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1987.

The INF Treaty banned nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 km. Russia would need such missiles to target NATO defence facilities, which Mr. Putin vowed to do if the U.S. deployed its missile defences in Europe.

In 2002, when the U.S. pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union it ignored Russian warnings that this would destroy “the cornerstone of strategic stability” based on the capacity of the two superpowers to launch a credible counterpunch to a nuclear first strike. According to American strategic thinking, strategic stability in the post-Cold War era would be based on a new Pax Americana, and the U.S. would no longer need arms control pacts with its erstwhile Cold War rival who has been crushed beyond recovery.

Contrary to Western expectations, Russia has bounced back. It has rebuilt its defence potential, constructed new missiles capable of piercing U.S. defences and resumed global patrols by its long-range nuclear-capable “Bear” bombers, extending its strategic reach to the U.S. shores. It is now Washington’s turn to feel concerned. “Bear flights in areas that we haven’t seen for a while — are really not helpful to security,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained last month.

Washington has suddenly rediscovered the value of arms accords with Russia. “We are concerned about Russia’s stated intention to suspend its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty,” Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to Moscow last month.

Washington also voiced concern at Russian plans to quit the INF pact. The U.S. is beginning to grudgingly admit that Russia’s resurgence has put arms control back on the agenda. U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, a leading Republican voice on relations with Russia, last month called on the White House to “abandon anxieties about legally binding commitments” on nuclear weapons. Arms control treaties, he argued, “reduce the chances of misinterpretation, miscalculation, and error.”

During a visit to Moscow earlier this month, Ms Rice said the U.S. was “going to work on a strategic framework” with Russia — a reference to the agreement George W. Bush and Mr. Putin reached at their summit in Kennebunkport in August to work on a new strategic nuclear arms reduction accord. Russia has long been pressing for an accord to replace the 1991 START-1 treaty, which expires in December 2009. So far, the U.S. has balked at negotiating one.

This U.S. turnaround on the issue of arms control would hardly have been possible if Russia had not rebuilt its military power.

Earlier this year, Russia adopted a $200 billion weapons modernisation programme for 2007-2015. “We will develop missile technology, including completely new strategic complexes,” Mr. Putin said during a televised call-in show last month. He described Russia’s re-armament plans as “not simply big, but grandiose, and they are fully realistic.”

This is not Cold War sabre-rattling as Western media have alleged but a determined strategy to reassert Russia as a global power.

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