Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty

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The United States, the Soviet Union, and twenty other member countries of the north atlantic treaty organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact signed the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty on November 19, 1990. The most complex and comprehensive conventional arms control treaty in history, the CFE limits levels of conventional—that is, nonnuclear—weapons and equipment with the purpose of creating greater military stability in Europe. The CFE played a crucial stabilizing role during the breakup of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s. It also made possible steep reductions in U.S. troop and equipment levels in Europe. In a period of remarkable historical change that transformed the political map of Europe, the treaty's provisions enabled a "velvet" rather than a violent revolution.

The CFE grew out of arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1980s. In particular, treaty negotiations were prompted by a 1986 call for conventional arms control by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, and a 1989 proposal by U.S. president george h. w. bush to limit the United States and the Soviet Union to 275,000 troops each in Europe. However, as the Soviet satellites gained independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s and large numbers of U.S. and Soviet troops were transferred out of Europe, the initial level of troops proposed by Bush proved needlessly high, and subsequent negotiations focused on armaments alone.

By November 1990, a treaty had been completed. Meeting in Paris, Bush, Gorbachev, and other leaders signed the CFE that month. The U.S. Senate approved it on November 25, 1991, by a vote of 90–4.

The treaty placed limits on five types of conventional armaments deployed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains: tanks, artillery, armored combat vehicles (such as armored personnel carriers), aircraft, and helicopters. It divided the area covered by the agreement into subzones, each having its own equipment limits. The agreement limited NATO and the Warsaw Pact each to 20,000 tanks, 30,000 armored combat vehicles, 20,000 artillery pieces, 6,800 combat aircraft, and 2,000 attack helicopters. The treaty did not address naval forces.

As originally designed, the CFE was meant to stabilize relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. NATO, for its part, sought to relocate Soviet forces eastward from the German border and to prevent their concentration in the Soviet Union west of the Urals. After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact on July 1, 1991, and the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 separate nations in December 1991, the CFE began to change its focus from management of the cold war standoff to management of the effects of the Cold War's conclusion.

Later amendments adapted the treaty to the changing European political situation. On May 15, 1992, the Commonwealth of Independent States—the 15 successor states of the Soviet Union—ratified armament limits in their territories as specified by the CFE limits for the Warsaw Pact nations. All adherents to the treaty met

subsequent arms reduction targets, though Russia continued to negotiate changes owing to unrest in Chechnya and other regions within its borders. By September 1994 the CFE had resulted in the destruction of more than 18,000 pieces of military equipment, including 6,000 by the Russian Federation.

The CFE enjoys widespread support in Europe and appears likely to remain in force for some time. CFE supporters argue that its armament limits and inspection requirements prevent an arms race and enhance the exchange of information between European countries, allowing each member nation to easily assess the military capabilities of its neighbors.

further readings

Croft, Stuart, ed. 1994. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty: The Cold War Endgame. Brookfield, Vt.: Dartmouth.

Falkenrath, Richard A. 1995. Shaping Europe's Military Order: The Origins and Consequences of the CFE Treaty. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

McCausland, Jeffrey D. 1995. "The CFE Treaty: Building European Security." Strategic Forum, no. 48 (October). National Defense Univ. Press.

Peters, John E., and National Defense Research Institute. 2000. The Changing Quality of Stability in Europe: The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty Toward 2001. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand.

——. 1997. CFE and Military Stability in Europe. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand.

Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE): Briefing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. 1997. Washington, D.C.: The Commission.


Arms Control and Disarmament; Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.

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The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty was signed in Paris on November 19, 1990, after less than two years of negotiation, by the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO). Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's announcement to the United Nations in December 1988 of unilateral Soviet force reductions had presented a challenge to NATO. Negotiations on conventional forces thus began in Vienna in March, 1989.

The Soviet leadership sought to reduce the threat of new western weapons and operational concepts, to create a "breathing space" for internal economic and social restructuring, and to divert manpower and resources to the country's economy. Both superpowers wanted to eliminate capabilities for initiating surprise attacks and large-scale offensive actions. The treaty mandated the reduction to equal levels of NATO and WTO forces from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains across five categories of weapons: armored combat vehicles (ACVs), artillery, combat aircraft, combat helicopters and tanks. The WTO nations were expected to make the largest cuts, given their numerical superiority. The treaty also provided for an advanced verification regime, including intrusive on-site verification and data exchanges.

The collapse of the USSR and Warsaw Pact in the period 19901991 presented problems, however. East European members of the WTO were unilaterally demanding the withdrawal of Soviet forces from their soil. Western critics argued that by focusing on bloc-to-bloc negotiations at a time like this, NATO was constraining itself unnecessarily. The USSR seemed hesitant to complete the CFE agreement, since the WTO hardly constituted a credible bloc. Meanwhile, the Soviet successor states were loath to see their future military forces constrained by a treaty signed by the former regime. Nevertheless, by January 1992, all agreed to ratify the CFE treaty, and three years later, the parties had eliminated some fifty thousand weapons and withdrawn fifteen thousand more.

The CFE treaty was later modified in November 1999, upon Russia's request. As late as 2003, NATO was continuing to press Moscow to reduce the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), and artillery it deployed in its northern and southern "flank" regions, namely Moldova and Georgia, which border Europe and the Black Sea. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was monitoring Russia's compliance with the CFE treaty.

See also: north atlantic treaty organization; warsaw treaty organization


Graham, Thomas. (2002). Disarmament Sketches: Three Decades of Arms Control and International Law. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Jenner, Peter. (2000). Defense and Security for the 21st Century. London: NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

Peters, John E. (1999). The Changing Quality of Stability in Europe: The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty Toward 2001. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Sharp, Jane M. O. (2003). History, Analysis, and Evaluation of the CFE Negotiation Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johanna Granville