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CFE Treaty

CFE Treaty. The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) was signed in Paris on 19 November 1990 by the heads of state of the then‐members of NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO, or Warsaw Pact). The treaty's system of equal and verified quantitative ceilings on conventional weaponry (main battle tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, strike aircraft, and attack helicopters) was designed to impose a stable military balance on the Cold War's two opposing alliances. In practice, however, the most pronounced effect of the CFE Treaty was to mandate steep reductions in the overall size and forward deployment of the Soviet armed forces; NATO forces were little affected. Such an outcome would have been inconceivable if the Cold War were not already well near its close by the time the CFE Treaty was ready for signature.

The origins of the treaty lie in a perception that was widely shared by the strategists of the NATO Alliance after the 1960s, when the alliance adopted a strategy of Flexible Response: the Warsaw Pact's gross preponderance of conventional military equipment in Central Europe meant that NATO would quickly be forced to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to halt a conventional offensive by the Warsaw Pact. Though possibly exaggerated, the belief that NATO's conventional inferiority to the Warsaw Pact had lowered the nuclear threshold in Europe gave rise to great interest in conventional arms control, especially in NATO's front‐line states, such as Germany. The first practical manifestation of this interest was the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks, which ground on inconclusively between 1973 and 1987. By the time the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed in December 1987, righting the conventional balance in Europe had become one of the alliance's highest strategic priorities.

The CFE Treaty was made possible principally by the foreign policy reforms of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, whose willingness to overrule the Soviet General Staff in the course of the negotiations attested to his determination to end the costly military standoff in Central Europe as quickly as possible.

The mandate talks, which began in Vienna on 17 February 1987, concluded on 14 January 1989, five weeks after Gorbachev had announced sweeping unilateral reductions in Soviet forces before the United Nations General Assembly. The negotiations themselves, beginning 9 March 1989, coincided with the fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe (mid‐1988 through December 1989), the fall of the Berlin Wall (9 November 1989), full German unification (3 October 1990), the effective collapse of the Warsaw Pact as a military alliance, and Moscow's decision to withdraw all Soviet forces from Eastern Europe. Thus, the CFE Treaty codified a new political‐military reality in Europe that probably would have emerged in any case, albeit without solemn treaty‐based undertakings.

The treaty entered into force on 9 November 1992, after a difficult ratification process that was complicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Eight of the former Soviet republics acceded to the treaty as the Soviet Union's successor states. When the treaty's numerical ceilings became binding on 19 November 1995, most of the thirty states‐parties were in compliance with its provisions. However, the Russian Federation, while in overall compliance with the treaty's ceilings, was in violation of the regional ceiling on the “flank zone,” an area that encompassed the Caucasus. This issue was resolved at the May 1996 CFE Treaty Review Conference, at which the parties to the treaty agreed to remove four Russian military districts (Pskov, Volgograd, Rostov, and Astrakhan) from the flank zone, thereby allowing Russia to meet the zone's original numerical ceilings on tanks, armored combat vehicles, and artillery pieces. According to this agreement, which entered into force in May 1997, Russia had until May 1999 to comply with the numerical limits on the reduced flank zone.

At the Lisbon summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in December 1996, the parties to the CFE Treaty agreed to begin a new round of negotiations aimed to “adapt” the CFE Treaty to new geopolitical realities of post–Cold War Europe. These negotiations were motivated in large part by NATO enlargement and sought to eliminate the treaty's bloc‐to‐bloc character. CFE adaptation talks began in Vienna in January 1997 and were expected to run at least until 1999.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament: Nonnuclear; Berlin Crises.]


Jane M. O. Sharp , Conventional Arms Control in Europe, in SIPRI Yearbook 1991: World Armaments and Disarmament, 1991.
Richard A. Falkenrath , Shaping Europe's Military Order: The Origins and Consequences of the CFE Treaty, Center for Science and International Affairs. Studies in International Security No. 6, 1995.

Richard Falkenrath

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