ONCE they were the new frontier of East-West relations. Now, talks on cutting conventional forces in Europe seem old-fashioned even as they lurch toward completion. A formal Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty would still place unprecedented limits on tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons. But the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has already greatly reduced the chance of a European conflict since CFE talks began in March 1989.
The pace of change has been such that one key CFE category, troop limits, has been abandoned. Agreed-on personnel numbers were simply ``overtaken by events,'' says one United States official.
With peace apparently breaking out in Central Europe, and with the Persian Gulf crisis absorbing US and Soviet officials' time, the Vienna-based CFE talks made little progress through the summer. When Secretary of State James Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze met in New York last weekend at the United Nations, however, a long meeting broke the logjam on several of the most difficult remaining issues.
Baker announced a ``possible agreement'' on the percentage of an alliance's weapons one nation may hold - the so-called ``sufficiency rule.'' He also said that ``some progress'' had been made on aircraft limits, the thorniest unsettled question.
US officials have said that they do not want to attend a full-scale summit of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe scheduled for this fall in Paris unless a CFE treaty is ready for signing. Thus both sides face pressures to clinch a treaty.
On Monday, both President Bush and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze agreed that chances for a CFE breakthrough were good. ``The European disarmament train has made up for the delays that worried all of us,'' said Shevardnadze.
Expert-level meetings on CFE in New York will continue through today, as foreign ministers of nations belonging to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) continue to meet. Tentative agreement on a CFE pact is possible, though as of this writing no further progress had been announced.
``The Soviets really want to do deals and get this done,'' says David Shorr, associate director of the British American Security Information Council.
The CFE ``sufficiency rule'' is intended to make sure that no one nation dominates an alliance's military structure. The US position had been that a single country should not have more than 30 percent of alliance weaponry. The Soviets, whose Warsaw Pact structure has almost ceased to exist, unsurprisingly have been holding out for a larger single-nation share: 40 percent.
Complicating matters further, Bulgaria, Romania, and other nominal Soviet allies have opposed the USSR's position on this issue, wanting to keep larger standing militaries for their own purposes.
According to Secretary Baker, the US and the USSR have now agreed to a sufficiency rule figure between 30 and 40. Some analysts suggest that the number might be different for different weapons, allowing the Soviets larger shares in such important categories as helicopters.
The problem of aircraft has dogged the talks almost since their inception. NATO originally was reluctant even to discuss aircraft limits, arguing that planes cannot invade and hold ground. Finally they were included at Soviet insistence.
The two sides are now particularly at odds over land-based naval aircraft. NATO wants these planes included in CFE. The Soviet Union argues that they should be largely exempted to balance out the US advantage in carrier-based naval aircraft, which aren't covered by the talks.
One compromise under discussion would keep land-based naval airpower out of strict CFE limits - but both sides would agree to freeze their holdings of such planes.
Verification, always a problem in arms treaties, remains a CFE hurdle to be run. Both sides agree on the necessity of on-site inspections. But NATO wants to be able to conduct roughly twice as many inspections in the Soviet Union as it allows on NATO territory - contending that such an imbalance is justified because of the USSR's sheer size. The Soviets want more-equal inspection quotas.
The Soviets also want to be able to convert 4,000 tanks and 5,000 armored combat vehicles to civilian uses, rather than destroy them.
NATO, arguing in essence that tanks make poor garbage trucks, is proposing much lower reuse figures of 400 tanks and 500 combat vehicles.
Earlier this month the chief US CFE representative, James Woolsey, said that negotiations cannot go on much longer if a treaty is to be ready by November. Once a draft pact is ready, it would take up to six weeks just to translate its 200-plus pages of text into the necessary six languages, he said.