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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., Europe Relax CFE Restrictions

Making a virtue of necessity, the United States and its European allies have eased the terms of a vital arms control agreement to allow Russia to be in compliance, preventing the treaty from falling into tatters.

The Kremlin has complained for more than two years that the Conventional Forces in Europe accord imposes intolerable limits on the numbers of tanks and artillery pieces Russia can deploy in its border regions. With a Nov. 17 deadline looming for CFE compliance and the nearly 10-month-old war in Chechnya putting pressure on Moscow to maintain its military muscle in the fractious southern region, Russia's longstanding concerns have escalated into an outright refusal to make concessions.

But rather than let the important disarmament accord unravel, officials of the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization say they have offered to redefine some border regions, effectively legitimizing the status quo.

At a conventional forces consulting group conference in Vienna last week, NATO offered to reclassify several zones where Russian forces exceed CFE limits from "flank regions" to "rear areas," which would allow the disputed hardware to remain in place.

NATO also appeared ready to make a similar gesture toward Ukraine, which wants to keep all 786 tanks it has deployed in the strategically sensitive Odessa military district. CFE provisions limit tanks in that flank to 680.

An official agreement among CFE signatories to reclassify the disputed districts is not yet final, but Russian and Ukrainian political analysts believe that the NATO proposal has already placated the resistant governments. And by accommodating the two nations' opposition to reducing their military presence in the flank areas, the observers say, the Western allies have salvaged an arms control agreement that is considered a security cornerstone of the new Europe.

But the search for what U.S. and European diplomats euphemistically refer to as "wiggle room" in the CFE treaty may also have signaled to the Kremlin that the West values an atmosphere of amity more than it does the disarmament measures mandated by the agreement.

Further, the West's bow to Russian insistence on keeping a huge armed presence along its southern flank as it quashes Chechnya's secession "may be viewed as Western acquiescence in Russian punitive expeditions," the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service stated.

Some Western analysts express concern that relaxing the terms of the CFE accord to sidestep another crisis in wobbly U.S.-Russian relations sets a dangerous precedent that may undermine the cause of implementing other arms control agreements.

"This is a serious and important issue because it goes to the sanctity of international commitments Russia inherited as the successor state to the Soviet Union," said a senior U.S. official on Moscow's unabashed intention to violate the CFE treaty's flank limitations.