NATO members announced last month that they were suspending the 1990 landmark Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE-Treaty) for “as long as necessary.” The official statement linked the decision to Russia’s withdrawal and its war against Ukraine, but the treaty has been outdated for more than two decades. Eventually, it was the continued and increasingly problematic membership of Belarus, which created legal and security tradeoffs for NATO, that tipped the balance toward suspension.

Ironically, most NATO members and Russia, however, seem to agree that simply holding onto post-Cold War arms control agreements is increasingly unsustainable within the now fundamentally different security environment. The decision will also add to the crisis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which recently held its 30th meeting of its Ministerial Council, its central decision-making and governing body, in North Macedonia.

While some NATO members argue that the decision to suspend the treaty is reversible, they condition such a development on highly unlikely scenarios, including Russia’s return to the treaty and the end of its war against Ukraine. Since Russia has stated that it leaves the CFE Treaty “without regret and with full conviction that it is doing the right thing,” the post-Cold War system of conventional arms control in Europe has effectively collapsed. It is time to think anew.

What Was the CFE Treaty?

The CFE-Treaty was the most successful conventional arms control agreement in history. It created equal ceilings of major conventional weapons systems between NATO and the Warsaw Pact by aiming to reduce the ability for large-scale surprise attacks. More particularly, for NATO members, asymmetric reduction requirements strengthened conventional deterrence and reduced reliance on nuclear escalation in case of war. In terms of alliance politics, the negotiation process as such also helped to defeat political calls for unilateral reductions.

In the 1990s, the treaty resulted in the elimination of more than 72,000 pieces of equipment, including battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters. It also established a stringent transparency and verification regime, including the exchange of military information about holdings and different forms of on-site inspections in the area of application – from the Atlantic to the Urals. In the 1992 CFE 1A agreement, member States furthermore agreed to create individual, politically binding limits for military personnel based on land.

NATO members have suspended all of these elements of the Treaty regime. The decision came in response to Russia’s complete withdrawal, which had been announced in May this year, though for all practical purposes Russia has been out of the treaty since December 2007, when it suspended its implementation. NATO members followed in 2011 by ending their obligation towards Russia as well. Nevertheless, treaty members among the allies continued to implement their obligations towards each other and non-NATO CFE State parties — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The suspension of the treaty effectively ends this remaining practice, even though in some cases bilateral implementation and voluntary inspections in line with the CFE framework may continue.

Why No Withdrawal?

NATO members had several options following the Russian withdrawal decision. Besides suspending the treaty, they also could have pursued a complete withdrawal or simply continued its implementation in order to preserve expertise and shape relations with other CFE member States. However, political considerations tipped the balance in favor of suspension.

On a rhetorical level, the official NATO statement cited Russia’s aggressive war on Ukraine and its withdrawal from the treaty as the pivotal reason to suspend the pact. Interestingly, it also highlighted that a scenario in which “[a]llied States Parties abide by the Treaty, while Russia does not, would be unsustainable.” Yet, in this regard, not much had changed in the treaty regime since the Russian suspension more than 15 years ago.

The real problem is Belarus. The CFE Treaty requires member States to share information about the composition of land, air, and air defense aviation forces. It also obliges disclosure of details regarding the quantity and types of major conventional weapons systems and notification of any alterations of their holdings to all other member States. Despite Russia’s treaty suspension, suspicions have loomed for many years that Minsk shares all this treaty-related data with Moscow. Amid Russia’s war against Ukraine, for which Belarus has assisted Russian troops, this practice has become increasingly problematic.

Additionally, in June 2022, Belarus announced its readiness to resume verification activities This decision put NATO’s CFE Treaty members in a dilemma: rejecting Belarusian inspection requests on their territories, even if justifiable for security reasons, would have raised legal issues. These concerns likely prompted Poland to halt treaty implementation towards Belarus, including both the information exchange and on-site inspections, in March 2023. By October 2023, Belarus had also suspended the treaty in relation to the Czech Republic and Poland. Ultimately, suspending the treaty has provided a solution to this tradeoff between legal commitments and security concerns.

At the same time, a complete withdrawal may have been blocked by lack of consensus. It took NATO members more than six months to arrive at the common position of suspending the treaty, but individual statements reveal the actual degree of diversity among allies. Turkey, for example, noted that “the need for the foundations and fundamental principles of the legally binding CFE Treaty […] continues.” Similarly, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg highlighted that they “will continue to implement measures to reduce military risk, with States in the Euro-Atlantic area that share these principles and commitments.”

Likewise, Germany stated that it “intends to continue upholding the national ceilings” under the treaty and remains “willing to continue certain measures of the CFE Treaty such as data sharing, with interested European countries.” By contrast, Poland declared that it was suspending “the CFE Treaty indefinitely and in its entirety” and does not “exclude taking further legal steps in the future, including the denunciation of the CFE Treaty.” In other words, a complete withdrawal remains on the table.

The diversity of views is also reflected in national timelines for suspension. While individual member States rushed ahead by immediately ending implementation, the United States, for example, decided to apply a 30-day period that was available and which expired in early December. By contrast, others will continue implementation until next spring on the basis of a 150-day notification period that the treaty envisions for withdrawal.

Some member States made a point of asserting that the suspension decision is “reversible.” But linking such a potential reversal to Russia’s return to the treaty or the resolution of the war in Ukraine makes this largely a theoretical option. There is no way back. In many ways, what remains of conventional arms control is now more of an exercise in shaping public opinion and virtue signaling rather than security policy. Nevertheless, according to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, suspension (in contrast to withdrawal) would still require NATO members to “refrain from acts tending to obstruct the resumption of the operation of the treaty,” but what exactly that means in practice is unclear.

What Are the Implications?

Besides ending the CFE Treaty for good, the political logic behind NATO’s suspension may have direct consequences for the last remaining arms control instrument, the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures of the OSCE. In February 2022, Russia notified all other 56 OSCE participating States that it would no longer take part in inspections and evaluation visits for an indefinite period of time, allegedly due to Covid-19 restrictions. The same year, Moscow also stopped sharing its national data in the Annual Exchange of Military Information (AEMI), which takes place every December. The Russian Foreign Ministry declared that it did not intent to ditch the Vienna Document, but its next steps would be determined by the behavior of other OSCE participating States.

In the past, the Vienna Document, which is only politically binding, has provided instruments for enhancing transparency. It requires the notification of certain military exercises and provides the possibility to observe them. It also enables a limited number of inspections to verify the AEMI and to check relevant activities at military sites. In this way, it has also served as a mechanism for raising public awareness of and drawing political attention to misconduct in a multilateral setting. That allowed participating States, for example, to publicly call out Russia’s military build-up and test its intentions prior to the invasion of Ukraine, without compromising national intelligence.

In contrast to the CFE Treaty, however, the political character of the Vienna Document provides certain advantages. If needed, it allows OSCE participating States to selectively implement measures to address the volatile security environment but without creating legal traps. Moreover, our conversations with policymakers suggest that there is no political consensus for ending the Vienna Document at the moment. Yet, the CFE Treaty suspension has certainly opened a window of opportunity for further reducing military transparency. The longer Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, the more pressure will increase to limit the exchange of information and to block access for inspection visits.

This slow-motion process adds to the crisis of the OSCE, a consensus-based organization that evolved from pan-European conferences on security and cooperation in the 1970s that contributed to the end of the Cold War. The OSCE has struggled to remain relevant under the current security environment because of the lack of agreement on the best security architecture for Europe. In addition, some participating States, including Russia, do not adhere to its principles.

Some States believe that the OSCE should be saved by excluding Moscow from its activities, since Europe now needs security against – not with – Russia. For instance, the foreign ministers of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as well as Poland decided  not to attend the annual OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in North Macedonia in late November, after an invitation had been extended to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Meanwhile, in his statement at the meeting, Lavrov acknowledged that he was indifferent over the future of the OSCE. Secretary of State Antony Blinken left North Macedonia for Israel before Lavrov arrived.

Eventually however, participating States agreed to extend the mandates for leading personnel, including the secretary general, and decided to appoint Malta to chair the OSCE in 2024. Both decisions, which require consensus, had long been blocked by Russian opposition, but the organization has managed to limp through another year. The leadership mandates, however, will only be extended for 9 months rather than for another full three-year term, which merely postpones the crisis.

The OSCE also continues to lack an approved unified budget, which makes all ongoing projects dependent on extra-budgetary contributions and provides no compensation for inflation. In case participating States would stop implementing the Vienna Document as well, it would nearly hollow out the politico-military dimension of the organization, which may provide the final kick to bring it down.

What Comes Next?

There can be no doubt that, long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the CFE Treaty had already ceased to effectively address genuine security concerns on the continent. Instead, expert proposals on reforming the conventional arms control architecture in Europe focused on sub-regional escalation scenarios and promoted risk reduction measures to avoid miscommunication and unintended consequences of military exercises in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.

Given an increasing concentration of conventional forces along the new border zone between NATO and Russia today and in the foreseeable future, similar ideas will remain relevant for managing interstate military competition. In addition – and depending on how the war in Ukraine comes to an end – possible ceasefire monitoring will require expertise in how to conduct inspections effectively. In both cases, the practical experiences with the CFE Treaty, which have been accumulated by national verification centers over three decades, will come in handy. This said, the suspension will likely further reduce the manpower of the respective units, which in some cases already today comprise only a handful of people.

On a broader scale, however, conventional arms control in Europe enters a new era that requires radically different conceptual thinking. In the post-Cold War period, experts within and outside of government could largely limit themselves to interpreting existing regulations, to monitoring compliance of member States, and to developing technical solutions to political problems. This approach has reached its limit. The future will be characterized by much more political uncertainty, amplified by technological change. The regulative content of the CFE Treaty – counting and limiting the number of major land-based weapons systems between members of two alliances – will not be sufficient.

Instead, State parties and the larger security expert community are back to square one – a situation not dissimilar to the one that existed before the first proposals for European conventional arms control negotiations appeared in the 1960s. The new security environment inevitably requires gaining a better understanding of the basic political and military parameters that could possibly guide respective positions on arms control in the future. In the short term, managing military incidents between Russia and the West as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine must become a priority.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine illustrates, however, the issue of surprise attack has, unfortunately, not become obsolete. Instead, the weapons systems used for this purpose have become more diverse. They now, among others, also include various kinds of precision strike missiles, some of which have conventional and nuclear variants, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The mobility and the range of these systems will limit the usefulness of purely geographic approaches or the local and even regional disengagement of forces. Nevertheless, more transparency about the available number of these systems and, if possible, their peace-time locations, as well as professional exchange about their use case scenarios, can provide first steps for stabilizing the European security environment, which is likely to remain highly perilous and volatile in the coming decades.

(Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in this article related to the OSCE: “When Authoritarians Undermine Multilateral Institutions: The OSCE at 50.“)

IMAGE: A technician uses a converted Gepard antiaircraft cannon tank (R) to move another Gepard antiaircraft cannon tank (L) that once belonged to the Bundeswehr at the Battle Tank Dismantling GmbH Koch on April 23, 2014 in Edeleben, Germany. From the early 1990s to that point, the company had dismantled more than 15,000 tanks and other armored vehicles, from German, Austrian, French and other European arsenals, as many nations reduced their military forces in accordance with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)