It’s impossible to create a working European security architecture when most states are controlled by an outside actor with no direct skin in the game
The 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, a curious creation of the post-Cold War era, has ceased to exist.
At the time it was created, the self-proclaimed victors of that period – the United States and NATO – were feverishly seeking ways to make their triumph at least a little civilized, while the defeated USSR was trying to make it less humiliating. The result of these equally futile efforts was a document doomed to be a short and rather inglorious footnote in history. A year later, the Soviet Union – and the Warsaw Pact it had led – ceased to exist.
Then within five years the decision was taken to expand NATO eastwards, and by the end of the 1990s the West had finally given up any illusions about the possibility of building a common security space in Europe.
Did anyone have such a hope from the start? Not necessarily. But the historical context meant it seemed sensible to try to end the Cold War in a way that was different from all the major military and political confrontations of the past. Especially in international politics, one can never rule out the possibility that seemingly unsuccessful temporary solutions will become the basis for a more stable order. This did not happen in Europe after the Cold War. But Russian foreign policy would have betrayed itself and its culture if it had been too eager to part with the treaty before any hope of reviving it had been lost.
Now Europe has returned to the historically familiar confrontation between Russia and the combined forces of the West. It is our country which is the only one of all non-Western civilizations that has never lost in the struggle for its unique niche in world politics. And this, unfortunately, makes conflict a much more natural phenomenon of European political life than peaceful cooperation. Although diplomacy should, of course, strive for the latter form of relations. That is why Russia made comprehensive proposals to NATO in December 2021 on issues fundamental to European security. The Western partners then refused to engage in serious dialogue, preferring the military-technical scenario of a crisis of the international order in Europe.
In technical terms, the CFE Treaty was based on the establishment of certain limits on the presence of the parties’ major conventional weapons within a defined geographical area – from the Atlantic to the Urals. The fact that these limits were set in the context of two military alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – made the treaty short-lived. By 1990, few doubted that the Soviet-led bloc would not last long. The second peculiarity of the CFE Treaty was the presence of the US: a state that was clearly not in Europe and that viewed regional security from a very different perspective. The deal thus effectively consolidated the American military presence in the “Old World.”
Strictly speaking, this was a problem with the whole design of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Europe (OSCE): it included two powers, the US and Canada, for whom the position on the continent was not a matter of security but of strategy. First and foremost, of course, for Washington, since the Canadian presence was always only a small complement to the American one. This meant that within the framework of the CFE there were states with fundamentally different interests in relation to its tasks and activities.
Peace in Europe as such has never been a goal for the US, but only a means of maintaining its global position. After the Cold War, Washington was able to take the place of the strongest in the world hierarchy, and any European agreements only interested it from this point of view.
For us Europeans, the CFE Treaty may have had a practical significance in the field of security. After the Cold War, the countries of Western Europe, with the exception of the United Kingdom, were rather rosy about their future. Led by Germany and France, they sincerely hoped to gradually rid themselves of humiliating American control and regain the sovereignty they had lost after the Second World War. Paris and Berlin enthusiastically welcomed the CFE Treaty, especially as it allowed them to significantly reduce their military spending.
Adapted in 1999 to the “new realities,” the euphemism for NATO’s aggressive post-Cold War eastward expansion, the CFE Treaty was never ratified by the Western parties. Only Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine completed the process. The US and its allies refused to do so, citing the presence of Russian peacekeeping contingents in Georgia and Moldova.
Even in the late 1990s, when relations between Russia and the West were far from confrontational, the US and the EU saw the most important European security agreements as a tool to put pressure on Moscow. They were used by the West purely instrumentally and as part of a broader policy.
The rationale was to reduce Russia’s ability to effectively confront NATO in the event of a direct military conflict. After Moscow had opposed the aggression of the US and its allies against Yugoslavia, such a conflict was seen in the West as inevitable in the future. Washington and Brussels began to systematically expand the territorial base from which they could fight Russia. Moreover, NATO had no practical reason to support the treaty – the accession of former Soviet allies meant that the total number of weapons in the bloc exceeded the limits set by the treaty.
Russia itself decided to suspend the treaty only in 2007. The most important factor was the restoration of our military capabilities and the ability to conduct an independent foreign policy. And in the conditions of the time, any independence in global affairs automatically meant conflict with the US, which did not tolerate any will but its own.
As a result, Moscow declared a moratorium on the implementation of the CFE Treaty, but until 2015 it participated in the activities of the treaty’s main body, the Joint Contact Group (JCG). It still hoped that the West would change its mind and decide to return to the basic ideas of the 1990 deal. When Russia realized that this was pointless, the JCG’s work effectively ceased. Finally, in 2023, Moscow decided to denounce the treaty, which entered into force at midnight on November 7.
As we can see, Russia’s farewell to the CFE Treaty was very long and full of hope that our partners would be able to change their selfish attitude towards one of the most important issues of European security. This is the peculiarity of Russian diplomacy and foreign policy culture, which is based on patience and far-sighted moderation. And nobody has any right to tell a country with more than 500 years of sovereign history how to behave.
The turbulent events of the 20th century have meant that of all the states in Europe, only Russia remains capable of making independent foreign policy decisions. This means that Moscow bears the main responsibility for the wisdom and balance of its decisions. Is an agreement similar to the CFE Treaty possible in the future? That depends on when European security becomes a matter for Europeans themselves again.