Moving to Ratify a Conventional Arms Pact


July 10, 1991|By JACK MENDELSOHN

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — Berkeley, California. -- After seven months of debate over exactly what it means, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe -- signed last November by the United States, the Soviet Union and 20 other nations -- was finally submitted to the Senate for ratification Monday.

The treaty is, without doubt, the most sweeping arms-control agreement in history. It will reduce to equal levels military equipment held by NATO and the former Warsaw Pact nations in five categories: tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, aircraft and helicopters.

The massive reductions called for by Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, nearly all of which must be made by the Soviet Union and its former allies, could not have taken place without the remarkable shift in Soviet foreign policy which has taken place under President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Forced to concentrate his energy on the dangers posed to the Soviet Union by its own internal economic, social and political disarray, Mr. Gorbachev has undertaken to divest the Soviet Union of three enormous burdens: a dissatisfied and disloyal East European empire, a large and grossly inefficient military establishment and a long and politically costly confrontation with the West, the only group of nations that could conceivably help the Soviet Union in its efforts to achieve economic and political well-being.

The massive reduction in Soviet conventional forces under this treaty is part of this painful process of divestiture. Coupled with Moscow's withdrawal from Central Europe -- all Soviet troops are already out of Czechoslovakia and Hungary and those in Poland and Germany will be gone by 1994 -- the conventional forces agreement has eliminated the threat of a surprise attack in Central Europe. And, limited to no more than two-thirds the level of forces permitted NATO, Moscow will not even be able to launch significant offensive operations from its own territory without an extensive and detectable mobilization.

Some experts argue that the conventional forces in Europe treaty has been overtaken by events and that, given present political and budgetary trends, the Soviet Union would have peacefully retreated from Eastern Europe in any case. But the West would not be as secure with an uncoordinated series of unilateral Soviet reductions, withdrawals and pledges as it is with a structured, steady, predictable framework for military disengagement.

The formal framework of the treaty imposes strict limits on the size and composition of the forces the Soviet Union can retain in the western portion of its territory. As recently as 1989, the Soviets had more than 120,000 tanks, armored combat vehicles and artillery pieces in a region stretching from the middle of Germany to the Ural Mountains. Now, as a result of the conventional forces treaty, it may deploy fewer than 47,000 in the same area, a cut of almost two-thirds in the largest arsenal in the world.

The terms of the treaty also provide for the West to receive an extraordinary amount of information about Soviet military deployments and to gain extensive inspection rights on Soviet territory. As a result, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe accord will help establish a clearer and more comprehensive picture of Soviet military activities than we have ever had. In addition, it makes any Soviet abrogation of the mutually agreed force levels a violation of international law, rather than a less critical decision to abandon a unilateral undertaking.

And finally, the conventional forces treaty provides a quantitative baseline upon which future conventional arms-control agreements in Europe can be built and a conceptual approach to arms control in other more troubled regions.

The conventional forces treaty is destined to become the centerpiece of European security. Although the historic achievement of the treaty has been somewhat overshadowed by recent events -- the Persian Gulf war, domestic turmoil in the Soviet Union, civil war in Yugoslavia -- the Senate ratification process will help to highlight and focus attention on the treaty's critical importance.

Amid an almost bloodless political revolution of unprecedented scope, the Soviet Union has agreed to withdraw to within its borders, to reduce its forces to one-third of their previous levels and to open its territory to virtually continuous on-site inspection. It is an unbelievable ending to one of the longest running dramas in modern history.

Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association, served with the U.S. Mission to NATO and as a member of the U.S. delegations to the SALT II and START negotiations.

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