Moratorium on the CFE Treaty and South Caucasian Security
№3 2008 July/September
Sergey Minasyan

Sergei Minasyan has a PhD in Political Science and is Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.

On July 14, 2007, the then Russian president Vladimir Putin
issued a decree suspending Moscow’s observance of its commitments
under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). The
formal reason for the suspension was the refusal by a majority of
countries to ratify the Adapted CFE Treaty, which allegedly put
Russia at a disadvantage with regard to its Western partners in the
wake of NATO enlargement.

Moscow imposed a moratorium on implementing the CFE Treaty in
December 2007 and gave the other participating countries 150 days
(in accordance with Article XIX of the Treaty) – until July 1, 2008
– for the full-scale ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty. If
this does not happen by that date, Russia reserves the right to
fully withdraw from the treaty. In order to attach greater
political and legal significance to the Russian president’s
initiative, the State Duma adopted a special bill on November 7,


The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe was signed on
November 19, 1990 in Paris by 22 participating countries in the
Warsaw Treaty Organization and NATO, and came into force in
November 1992. The document imposed quantitative limitations on the
deployment of conventional arms and military equipment in Europe –
from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains – in five major
categories: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery (with
a caliber of 100 millimeters and higher), combat aircraft and
combat helicopters. In order to reduce the concentration of
armaments and rule out surprise attacks by either military bloc,
the parties limited the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles
and artillery systems in four zones: the Central Zone, Extended
Central Zone, Super-Extended Central Zone, and Flank Zones in the
north and the south of the CFE area of application.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of
Independent States’ summit in Tashkent on May 15, 1992 divided the
Soviet quota of armaments between the newly independent states. The
disappearance of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the
elimination of the bloc confrontation in Europe, and the admission
of Eastern European countries to NATO brought about the need to
reconsider the basic provisions of the CFE Treaty. Former Warsaw
Pact members joined NATO – together with their armament quotas,
while the balanced bloc limitations, as stipulated by the Treaty,
remained in force. In addition, Russia was particularly
discontented with the flank limitations under the CFE Treaty and
the appearance of “gray zones” in the territory of some countries
that had joined NATO but had not acceded to the CFE Treaty.

The member states of the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) signed an agreement on the adaptation
of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (the Adapted
CFE Treaty) at their Istanbul summit on November 19, 1999, which
reflected the changes in geopolitical realities. The adapted treaty
set national and territorial – instead of bloc-based – limits on
conventional armed forces. National limits apply to all categories
of armaments belonging to a given country and limited by the
treaty, whereas territorial limits apply to domestic and foreign
battle tanks, armored combat vehicles and artillery.

However, only Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine have so
far ratified the Adapted CFE Treaty. Western countries have
refrained from following suit under the pretext that Moscow has not
met its political commitments made at the OSCE Istanbul summit to
withdraw its military bases from Georgia and Moldova. Moscow argues
that in the case with Georgia it has met its commitments in full,
while the withdrawal of Russian military equipment from
Transdniestria is a bilateral issue and cannot be an obstacle to
the ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty by other countries.

Meanwhile, many experts believe that the “virtual” quota ratio
between NATO and Russia does not pose any real military threat to
Russian security. Moscow’s moratorium can rather be viewed as a
Kremlin resource for foreign-policy bargaining with the United
States, NATO and the European Union on various regional issues. At
the same time, it is the absence of real military threats that
makes the achievement of an agreement to preserve the CFE regimes


On May 15, 1992, Russia and the three South Caucasian states –
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – agreed in Tashkent on the
maximum-allowed levels for armaments and military equipment in the
region, thus dividing the former Soviet Union’s quota for the
region among themselves. At the OSCE Istanbul summit, the South
Caucasian states signed the Adapted CFE Treaty, which provided for
a revision of the flank limit quotas, but never ratified it.

Nevertheless, Armenia and Georgia did not violate the CFE
provisions. Moreover, during hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, for
example, Armenia invited international CFE inspectors, who found no
violations of Yerevan’s international commitments under the

Azerbaijani experts and sources claim that Armenia is keeping
large amounts of its weapons and military equipment in
Nagorno-Karabakh. In this case, however, we have a basically
different situation which is in no way related to Yerevan
fulfilling its commitments. The armaments and military equipment
located on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh do not belong to the
Armenian Armed Forces, but to the army of the Nagorno-Karabakh
Republic (NKR), which is not recognized by the international
community. Nagorno-Karabakh seized a large part of these armaments
from the Azerbaijani Army during the hostilities of 1991-1994. In
addition, the NKR came into possession of armaments and military
equipment of the 366th motorized rifle regiment of the former
Soviet Army, deployed in Stepanakert [the administrative center of
Nagorno-Karabakh – Ed.]. Thus, the legal non-recognition of the
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by the international community creates
problems with the extension of the CFE Treaty’s provisions to its
Armed Forces.

But in the case with Azerbaijan, we have seen obvious breaches
of the CFE Treaty throughout its duration. In particular, after the
hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh were over and until the mid-1990s,
the number of battle tanks, armored combat vehicles and artillery
systems declared by Baku by far exceeded its quotas (apparently,
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry officials presented real figures about
the armaments and military equipment that were in service with
Azerbaijan’s Armed Forces “due to ignorance”). Later, Baku declared
its armaments in amounts that it was allowed to have under the
Protocol on National Ceilings for Conventional Armaments and
Equipment Limited by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in
Europe, although Azerbaijan did not cut its armaments during that

So, there are reasons to say that Azerbaijan considerably
exceeded the amount of armaments and equipment allowed by the CFE
Treaty. Also, active purchases by Baku of large amounts of
armaments and military equipment (see Tables 1 and 2) did not
affect its official figures either.

Moreover, for several years Azerbaijan tried, albeit
unsuccessfully, to increase its quotas for armaments in
circumvention of CFE provisions. It argued that its population and
size by far exceed the figures of other small participating states
to the CFE Treaty, and these figures were important in determining
the ceilings for armaments and military equipment. Arif Yunus, a
prominent Azerbaijani expert, admits: “As this treaty imposes
strict limitations on the maximum number of troops, armaments and
military equipment for Azerbaijan, it has to hide the real

Table 1. Azerbaijani Arms Imports in 2004-2006 According
to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms

Table 2. Azerbaijan’s Armaments and Military Equipment
Officially Declared Under the CFE Treaty (in parentheses –
CFE-allowed levels), units

One has to admit, though, that neither the “basic” nor the
Adapted CFE Treaty offer real and effective arms control mechanisms
for the South Caucasus. This factor provides ample opportunities
for Azerbaijan to bypass the CFE provisions (even by removing
combat equipment from areas where it is permanently deployed and
hiding it in the mountains several hours before the arrival of
international military inspectors).

The legal relic of the Cold War has proved to be untenable with
regard to regional and sub-regional security systems in Europe, as
well as in areas of “frozen conflicts” and in unrecognized states
in the territory of the former Soviet Union. The South Caucasus is
a peculiar region as there are three separatist enclaves there,
which have no real contacts in the field of security with their
former parent states. This factor creates serious problems for
projecting CFE mechanisms into the zones of the Nagorno-Karabakh or
Georgian-Abkhazian conflicts, for example.

On the other hand, political problems that cause disagreements
between major Western countries and Russia have also made the CFE
Treaty hostage to global political processes. However imperfect the
CFE mechanisms may be, they helped to contain militarization in the
South Caucasus and to build confidence in the military sphere


After Russia withdraws from the Treaty on Conventional Armed
Forces in Europe, the treaty will naturally no longer apply to it,
but theoretically one can assume that other European countries will
continue to observe it for a while “by inertia.” However, without
Russia’s participation, new initiatives for limiting conventional
armaments in Europe will be ineffective and irrational and will not
have a long-term future.

However, for two South Caucasian states – Armenia and Georgia –
keeping the CFE Treaty in effect would be advantageous in any event
due to their political interests and security priorities.
In particular, Tbilisi is interested in the treaty, as it
indirectly helps it reason its position on the issue of the
withdrawal of Russian military bases according to the 1999 Istanbul
accords. Also, Georgia uses the treaty as a propagandistic and
legal resource against the Russian military presence in Abkhazia –
the problem of a military base in Gudauta.

On the other hand, it is very important for NATO-oriented
Georgia to fully observe the CFE Treaty as it seeks to take the
position of a respectable security partner in the eyes of Western
countries. This factor makes Tbilisi be particularly accurate and
detail-minded in providing data to the UN Register of Conventional
Arms in keeping with CFE procedures.

Finally, the flank limits to some extent restrict Russia’s
military presence in the North-Caucasian Military District, which
is adjacent to the Georgian border.

Armenia is skeptical about the real effectiveness and efficiency
of the CFE Treaty for containing militarization in the South
Caucasus; yet it advocates the treaty’s preservation as it is still
a mechanism that curbs the regional arms race. Russia’s withdrawal
from the CFE Treaty does not meet Armenia’s interests, and Yerevan,
despite its allied relations with Moscow, will likely try to keep
its membership in the treaty, if Western countries find a
possibility to modernize or extend it. But all these efforts will
make sense for Yerevan only if Baku complies with the treaty, which
is very doubtful.

The only country in the region that is not at all interested in
preserving the CFE Treaty is Azerbaijan, which has been actively
arming itself. Moreover, Baku has declared its wish to solve the
Nagorno-Karabakh problem militarily. Observers agree that Baku will
take avail of Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty to launch
uncontrolled militarization. Azerbaijani expert Dzhansur Mamedov
admits: “It is a good move for Azerbaijan: as we are going to build
up armaments, Russia’s withdrawal only unties our hands. Now it is
necessary that our authorities not make compromises with forces
that will try to make us observe the CFE limits.” According to
preliminary data for 2007, Baku purchased from Ukraine alone an
additional 60 122-mm D-30A howitzers with 13,000 shells; 20 BTR-70
armored combat vehicles; 145 300-mm rockets for the 9A52 Smerch
multiple rocket launcher; 50 anti-tank guided missiles; and about
11,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.

However, some experts believe that Russia’s withdrawal from the
CFE Treaty may result in a heavier Russian military presence in the
South Caucasus, specifically in Armenia, due to a build-up of
armaments and military equipment at Russia’s 102nd military base
stationed there. The Russian military presence in Armenia was
legalized within the CFE framework at the Istanbul summit in the
form of the so-called “temporary deployment.” The Adapted CFE
Treaty allows each participating state to host on its territory
temporary deployments in excess of its territorial ceiling by no
more than 153 battle tanks, 243 armored combat vehicles and 140
pieces of artillery. The amount of CFE-limited armaments and
military equipment now deployed at the 102nd base does not exceed
the “temporary deployment” level, while the number of Russian
battle tanks in the area – even if counted together with battle
tanks in service with the Armenian Armed Forces – does not exceed
Armenia’s territorial ceiling.

At the same time, experts say that the relatively limited
“potential” theater of operation does not require more heavy
materiel at the Russian military base in Armenia. Therefore, an
increase in the number of armaments at the 102nd military base is
unlikely while the CFE Treaty remains in force. Russia may only
replace outdated types of armaments and equipment, modernize some
of the equipment, and partially replenish the base’s military

But if NATO countries decide that continuing to comply with the
CFE Treaty is senseless now that Russia has withdrawn from it, or
if they start creating an alternative mechanism for arms control in
Europe without Russia’s participation, all the prerequisites will
emerge in the South Caucasus for a full-scale arms race. In this
case, the prospects for a build-up (or conservation) of the Russian
military presence in Armenia must be considered on the assumption
of other political conditions.


The suspension by Russia of its observance of the CFE Treaty and
related agreements and protocols creates a new situation in arms
control in Europe. In this light, the South Caucasian participating
states to the CFE Treaty have different views on the ways to ensure
their national security.

Georgia will undoubtedly harshly criticize Russia for its
withdrawal from the CFE Treaty, which will let Tbilisi again link
its security interests with those of NATO countries and even try to
use this factor to achieve a desirable development of the situation
involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Azerbaijan will take advantage of the possible collapse of the
CFE Treaty to make uncontrolled purchases of armaments and military
equipment from other countries, thus launching an arms race, and
will use the build-up of its military arsenal to exert pressure or
even blackmail in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Armenia may show more insistence in advocating the need for
retaining Nagorno-Karabakh’s control over the territory of lowland
Karabakh as an essential condition for keeping the
military-political balance in the zone of the Armenian-Azerbaijani
conflict and as a guarantee of the non-resumption of

In case the CFE Treaty collapses, the chances are very good that
an arms race will begin in the South Caucasus. However, its
possible consequences for security in the region are not clear.

First, it is difficult to say how a build-up of
Azerbaijan’s military arsenal will affect its combat capabilities
if hostilities resume in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone.

Second, despite increasing purchases by Baku of
expensive armaments, the Armenians may make up for this military
build-up with cheaper “countersystems” or defensive weapons that
will be effective enough to maintain the current frontline and thus
not yield to the armaments and military equipment purchased by

Third, Armenia can compensate for its lower
financial capabilities, compared to Azerbaijan, by using its
preferential status offered by the allied relations with Russia and
its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization,
which groups seven post-Soviet countries. For example, when
Azerbaijan purchased expensive MiG-29 fighter aircraft from Ukraine
in late 2006, it was announced that a joint Armenian-Russian air
defense group, equipped with advanced surface-to-air missile
systems, was beginning its duty in Armenia.

In addition, the overt militarization of Azerbaijan creates
political preferences for Armenia. Baku’s bellicose statements
provide Yerevan and Stepanakert with additional arguments for
substantiating their rights to the territory of lowland Karabakh
and for the need to keep it under Armenian control, as it is an
important factor in maintaining stability and overall military
balance in the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation. The more
Azerbaijan talks about an early beginning to military actions aimed
at liberating Karabakh, the more confidently the Armenian party can
say that any territorial concessions are inadmissible.
Relinquishing the territory may change the military balance and
tempt Azerbaijan to really start hostilities. Therefore, it is in
the interests of the international community to keep this territory
under Armenian control – this will be the most effective guarantee
of non-resumption of war by Azerbaijan; it will preserve regional
stability and strengthen security.

The new spiral in the arms race in the Armenian-Azerbaijani
confrontation zone creates a situation that has been well known
since the Cold War era, when mutual deterrence reduces the
likelihood of the outbreak of hostilities. The present military
potentials of the parties are a far cry from those during the
period of hostilities in the mid-1990s. The killing capability of
some of the weapon systems, for example, the 9A52 Smerch multiple
rocket launcher in the Azerbaijani Army or the WM-80 Typhoon
multiple rocket launcher in the Armenian Army, makes them
comparable to tactical nuclear weapons.

A mutual build-up of armaments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
zone at this stage reduces the probability of hostilities.
Stability in the conflict zone will be maintained due to a new
“balance of threats,” which will force the parties to keep the
fragile peace for a long time to come. But, of course, this cannot
make up for serious measures to strengthen security and build
confidence in the region, which must pave the way toward a
full-scale settlement of the conflict.