Can an international treaty restrain the Caucasus arms race?
by Emil Sanamyan
YEREVAN – The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, a relatively obscure agreement concluded toward the end of the Cold War between the countries of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact and NATO, and since modified in part to adapt to post-Soviet realities, is in the news again.
CFE is a particularly important treaty for countries like Armenia and its Caucasus neighbors, which rely solely on conventional forces for their defense needs. The treaty limits the number of soldiers, aircraft, large-caliber artillery, tanks, and other armored vehicles each country that is party to the treaty is allowed to have.
It also provides for a reporting and inspection mechanism, wherein each participating country reports annually on its holdings of treaty-limited equipment, their exact location, as well as acquisition and retirement of weapons. With Caucasus states continuing to build up their militaries, the CFE, at least in theory, should be able to put a break on this ongoing militarization in the region.
Strategic gambit with tactical consequences
In recent weeks Russian officials have called for the revision of the CFE and even threatened to suspend Russia’s participation. These pronouncements came shortly
after the summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin at Kennebunkport, Maine, in which the Russian president offered strategic cooperation
on missile defense, a proposal so far met with little enthusiasm in the United States.
With the United States going ahead with its plans to install missile- defense facilities in Central Europe, Russia’s threats are more likely to reflect its annoyance at being ignored rather than a plan to remake or do away with CFE.
But if for Russia and the U.S. CFE is just one of the pieces of their strategic chessboard, and there are no real threats of conventional wars in most of Europe, things are different in the Caucasus, with its unresolved conflicts.
Currently Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are all limited to the same number of tanks (220 each), armored vehicles (220), artillery (280), and aircraft (100 jets and 50 helicopters).
Azerbaijani officials have long called for raising their limits on the number of weapon systems, as part of their effort to gain a military edge over Armenia
and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s calls for revision of the treaty thus provide a potential window of opportunity for Azerbaijan to exploit. That country is already believed to be in violation of several of the treaty limitations, and flush with oil revenue it has in recent years become a particularly eager buyer of weapons systems.
Basis for a regional security regime
The cease-fire regime between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that has held for over thirteen years is largely self-regulated. In other words it is based on a conscious decision by both sides not to restart hostilities, at least not now.
Still the attitude of the international community, especially its major players – U.S., Russia, and European states – continues to be a major factor in the two sides’ behavior.
Most significantly, these states have encouraged the sides to maintain the relative peace and to see that all outstanding issues are dealt with through negotiations
mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
While no peacekeeping forces have been deployed, the OSCE has the Office of the Personal Representative, which conducts monthly monitoring of the cease-fire regime along the Line of Contact.
The CFE treaty has also served as a kind of confidence-building measure. Every year, all treaty participants exchange information on the location of their military units,
the number of their personnel, and weapons holdings. So, in theory, the Armenian side is informed, although with some delay, about the location and make-up of all of Azerbaijan’s military units, and vice versa.
…and a mutual deception mechanism
But each side has been engaged in one form of deception or another.
On the one hand, Azerbaijan claims it has “retired” several hundred tanks and its holding are right around the 220 ceiling. But it can be argued that a number of these “retired” systems could be quickly brought back into service or at the very least cannibalized for parts.
Azerbaijanis have also spread heavy weapons through services other than the armed forces proper – the Special State Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs, State Border Guard Service, and even the Ministry of Emergency Management.
In all, Armenian commentators believe that Azerbaijan’s tank holdings are at about 500, with individual units in various states of readiness.
On the Armenian side, the size and make-up of the Karabakh Defense Army are not publicly reported – since Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is not a party to CFE – and its equipment is not counted toward the Armenian military’s ceiling. Armenia reports having only 110 tanks.
Since 1999 Azerbaijan has claimed that Karabakh Armenian forces alone have more than 300 tanks, likely an exaggerated figure, but a frequently cited one in the absence of other estimates.
Treaty participants have also sought to report as little information as possible, and there is apparently an effort to keep some facilities off limits and out of annual filings.
While there is a mechanism that entitles every participating state to send an inspection delegation to any other participating state, no Armenian delegation has been allowed to go into Azerbaijan.
Turkish inspectors have regularly visited Armenia, but not Nagorno-Karabakh.
Questions about CFE and its viability
CFE remains the only existing international security framework within which the continuing arms race in the Caucasus could at least be monitored if not contained. Therefore, a potential unraveling of the treaty owing to U.S.-Russian tensions does not augur well for the Caucasus region and the rest of Europe.
But the fact that participating countries have also exploited the treaty loopholes to keep a portion of their weapon holdings off the books and have not been sanctioned
as a result has also created a sense among member countries that they do not need to leave the CFE to be able to overcome its restraints.