In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, a panel of experts discussed the prospects for implementation of the 1999 OSCE Istanbul summit decisions committing Russia to withdrawing its military forces from Moldova and Georgia by December 31, 2002. The consensus of the panel was that Russia would not succeed in fulfilling its obligations by the deadline, but progress has been made and, given Russia's continued commitment to the goals of the 1999 decision, the prospects for further progress are good. Nevertheless, Russia's failure to meet the deadline is of serious concern, and not only to Moldova and Georgia.

The 1999 Istanbul decision represented a fundamental shift in how the issue of Russia's military presence in Moldova and Georgia was addressed. First, it committed the Russian government to a concrete deadline in place of previous expressions of general good will. Second, it enshrined the importance of the consent of the two smaller countries. Third, it moved the issue from bilateral debates to a multilateral framework including OSCE members. Most importantly, the issue of Russia's withdrawal of its residual military presence was linked to a program of high importance to Russia, the United States, and Western Europe – the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This last factor forced all concerned parties to focus on the issue and make tough decisions (i.e. for Russia to withdraw forces, and Western nations to apply diplomatic pressure on Russia).

Separatist conflicts in both countries – Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia in Georgia – greatly complicate the issue of Russia's withdrawal of forces. Separatist forces in both break-away regions proclaim a desire to integrate back into Russia, and receive support from various political and governmental factions in Russia. While Russia claims a peacekeeper status for its forces in these regions, these forces facilitated the de facto successful secession of the regions and sustain their respective drives for autonomy and integration with Russia. In both regions, but especially in Transnistria, profitable smuggling operations provide an added economic incentive to the Russian forces and separatists to resist any change in the status quo.

The panelists reacted strongly to a question as to whether Russia's failure to meet the Istanbul deadline constitutes a failure in the multilateral approach to the problem and whether the problem itself is important enough to hold up passage of the adapted CFE treaty. On the issue of whether the multilateral approach is a failure, several panelists noted the framework was set up to address a very difficult problem, and it must evaluated in terms of problems avoided as well as problems solved. With regards to the CFE treaty, one panelist stated that to de-link Russia's Istanbul commitments from the CFE would open the door to a loss of confidence in the treaty itself.