Today, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree suspending Russia’s participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, for reasons of “national security.” The 1990 pact limits the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces, attack helicopters, and combat aircraft permitted in the theater between the Atlantic and the Urals. The immediate practical effect of Moscow’s move will be to end NATO’s onsite inspections of Russian forces (such inspections are part of the terms of the treaty). The suspension may also mean that the Kremlin will no longer respect limits on conventional weapons near its western borders. It appears that Putin signed this decree primarily to express his displeasure at Washington for its missile defense plans, although there have also been disagreements over the West’s failure to ratify a 1999 amendment to this treaty.
CFE has been called “an important cornerstone of European security,” but it is largely a symbolic one. The risk of another great war on the Continent is extremely low. No participant in the treaty is planning an attack, or even contemplating a real buildup of its conventional forces. Russia’s suspension of participation may be only a gesture. But it seems clearly meant to shape European politics more to Putin’s liking and to test Western unity.
Putin’s edict comes two weeks after his visit to the Bush family home in Kennebunkport. Now we have conclusive proof that Dubya’s brand of personal diplomacy has failed to moderate Russian behavior. It’s time for our President to give up the folksy approach and respond in kind to his friend Vladimir. Perhaps he can start by telling the dour autocrat that we will pull out of CFE if he does not suspend his suspension.