The Russian decision to suspend its participation in the treaty on conventional forces in Europe means that Russia will halt inspections of its military sites by NATO and no longer limit the number of its conventional weapons as it has been doing — at least in theory.
The moratorium, however, has little real meaning. Many European nations use the onsite inspections to keep track of Russian troop movements but the U.S. has the capability to monitor Russian forces without them. At the same time, Russia has not reached the troop ceilings that the treaty already allows. Russian military and political leaders know that they face no threat from the West so it’s unlikely that they will make the investment necessary to build up their forces beyond the existing treaty limits in the European part of the country.
The treaty on conventional forces is, in many ways, a relic of the Cold War. Originally intended to balance the forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, it was revised in 1999 to take account of the new realities, including the fact that many former Warsaw Pact members had since become part of NATO. The previous bloc-to-bloc basis for calculating troop ceilings was replaced with a set of national and territorial ceilings. The adapted treaty, however, has not been ratified by the NATO member states because Russia has not honored its commitment to withdraw its forces totally from Georgia and Moldova.
In the end, the Russia decision to suspend participation in the treaty is a symbolic gesture intended to show Russian irritation with the U.S. plans to establish an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe. It accompanies Russia’s threat to retarget its missiles on the Europeans who, ironically, are also its biggest energy customers and shows more than anything else the failure of the Russians to accept the independence of their former Eastern European satellites. Coming immediately after the Bush-Putin summit in Kennebunkport that was intended to smooth over relations, the Russian action is also a demonstration of how little effect such summits, which are intended to improve the atmosphere without underlying agreement on fundamentals, really have.
– David Satter is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State.