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"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
EU / NATO

Senators Fight Cruise Missile Funding

April 2017

Nine Democratic senators, led by Edward Markey (Mass.), are seeking to limit development funding for a nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile known as the long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon that the Air Force is planning to field by 2030. The missile and its refurbished warhead reportedly will cost $20-30 billion over 20 years to produce, Markey said in a March 8 news release. “Congress shouldn’t fund dangerous new nuclear weapons designed to fight unwinnable nuclear wars,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the legislation that would cap funding for the missile and its warhead at 2017 levels until the Trump administration submits a Nuclear Posture Review report to Congress. Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 of these missiles to replace the AGM-86B cruise missiles, which have been in use since 1986. Critics say the new weapon is not needed and its ability to carry nuclear or conventional warheads could lead to a cataclysmic error if an adversary mistakes the launch of conventional missiles for nuclear ones. “The new nuclear cruise missile is expensive, redundant, and above all, dangerous,’” warned Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund on March 8.

Nine Democratic senators are seeking to limit development funding for a nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile known as the long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon.

Russia: U.S.-Russian Relations and the Future Security of Europe

January/February 2017

By Ulrich Kühn

The incoming Trump administration inherits a U.S.-Russian relationship marked by disagreement and confrontation in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the wars in Syria and Ukraine, the West’s use of economic sanctions, and reciprocal complaints about interferences in domestic affairs. 

The arms control dialogue is stagnating, and the risk of conflict, whether by intent or miscalculation, is growing.

U.S. soldiers participate in a parade on November 23, 2016, in Vilnius, Lithuania, during Iron Sword military exercises. Approximately 4,000 soldiers from NATO countries engaged in the two-week exercises intended to show support for the the three small Baltic states considered at risk from Russia. (Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)From a European perspective, the current confrontation between NATO and Russia and the question of how to preserve the post-Cold War peace in Europe should be a prime concern for the new administration. For President-elect Donald Trump, U.S. commitments to allies might hinge more on transactional considerations than on shared values. That might open up requirements for deeper integration of defense planning and spending among European allies. It also offers the chance for a fresh start on Russia, not in the sense of a bilateral “reset” but in terms of formulating a more focused U.S. strategy toward Russia that recognizes the unpleasant political realities, reminds Moscow of U.S. NATO security guarantees, and avoids possible escalation with Russia.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, have each displayed proclivities that could worsen relations between the two nuclear powers. To avert the more dire outcomes, the new administration should start by reassessing the fundamental Russian and U.S. interests in Europe.

Russia Today

Throughout the last 20 years, Russian leaders have made it abundantly clear that they object to NATO enlargement. As far back as 1997, Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president, warned that “the eastward expansion of NATO is a mistake and a serious one at that.”1 Since 2008, Moscow in addition has made public its claim to “regions in which Russia has privileged interests.”2 Even though the Kremlin has never clearly specified what that means and to which countries it pertains, it would seem to include all non-NATO post-Soviet states.

Combining these two principles, it becomes clear that any enlargement of Western institutions, be it NATO or the European Union, runs counter to Russian interests.

In order to assert its interests, Russia relies on a strategy of creating a “belt of insecurity and instability” along its southwestern periphery.3 What first sounds illogical from a Western perspective, because stability and security are viewed as inherently worthwhile interests, can only be understood by considering the Kremlin’s perspective. The Russian leadership does not see its foreign policy as “revanchist” or seeking to reverse territorial losses, as it is often described in Western accounts. Instead, it sees Russia as a status quo power that always had special interests in the post-Soviet space and the West, above all the United States, as a status quo challenger.

From Moscow’s viewpoint, Russia is therefore in a defensive position, forced into a constant battle by the West, which relentlessly seeks to expand its influence through NATO and EU enlargement and the export of Western cultural, normative, and informational policies. This battle is all the more threatening because the Russian leadership is well aware that the West has the greater resources and because it is frantically trying to avoid complete international isolation.4

The Russian leadership fights this battle in two geographic theaters and with different means. The first is the post-Soviet space. Here, the Kremlin is only in a stronger position versus the West if it employs force as it did in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and in eastern Ukraine currently. All three cases are forms of direct coercion that are also aimed at deterring other post-Soviet states from drifting toward the West.

In the second theater, comprised of NATO member states, Russia is very much disadvantaged. Because of its comparative weakness, Moscow uses the tactics of cross-domain coercion5 and asymmetric responses below the level of open kinetic hostilities. Cross-domain coercion means that the Kremlin extends its struggle to all possible domains with the aim of dragging the West into a constant low-level conflict in the hope of manipulating its calculus toward accepting Russia’s claims, a tactic also known as “coercive gradualism.”6 This includes frequent NATO airspace violations, close military encounters over the Baltic and Black seas, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and support and financing of populist movements in NATO states.

It is here that the nuclear dimension—basically the only dimension where Russia matches the United States—comes into play. Regular instances of Russian nuclear signaling toward Washington and individual NATO member states have accompanied and aggravated the ongoing conflict. Reminders that Russia could turn the United States “into radioactive ash,”7 Putin allegedly pondering putting nuclear weapons on alert during the Crimea takeover,8 the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, large-scale conventional maneuvers that end with a simulated nuclear strike,9 and the alleged testing and production of a ground-launched cruise missile within ranges forbidden by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty are all aimed at unsettling NATO member states and creating the image of a reckless and unpredictable Russia that one should “best not mess with.”10

Military Balance

NATO member states and the U.S. strategic community are not unified in their assessment of the nature and purview of Russian interests. Is the Kremlin trying to militarily roll back U.S. influence, even in NATO member states? Much depends on what answer is formulated to this question, particularly regarding NATO’s most vulnerable members, the Baltic states.

The Obama administration answered that question by inference and opted to reassure the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and Poland by low-key military commitments. As part of the European Reassurance Initiative, Washington is in the process of sending one armored brigade combat team of 4,000-5,000 personnel to rotate continuously through eastern Europe, prepositioning additional war-fighting equipment in western Europe, and improving air fields and bases. In addition, U.S. forces will lead a multinational battalion of approximately 1,000 personnel in northeast Poland.

Those measures can hardly be viewed as threatening Russia’s conventional regional superiority in its vast Western Military District, where some 300,000 military personnel are deployed, or as a serious attempt at deterrence by denial. Yet, if the Trump administration comes to a different assessment or if Russia were to increase its conventional forces along the Baltic borders, Washington would basically have to multiply its current military commitment or push allies to step in on behalf of the United States. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech on July 26, 2015, during celebrations for Navy Day in Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. (Photo credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)Russia has largely remained silent about its intentions. The Kremlin reaps benefits from confronting NATO with uncertainty. Even so, some of the facts on the ground are quite revealing. The provocative announcement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that three new divisions would be formed “to counter the growing capacity of NATO forces”11 was actually a reorganization, which represented a certain reversal of Russian military reforms. Those three new divisions will merge already existing and deployed brigades and will be stationed around Ukraine.12 The reshufflings mean that the Russian General Staff deems the scenario of a midsized conventional war possible and that its theater could be Ukraine. For the time being, it does not mean that Russia is preparing for a war against the Baltic states, as some U.S. experts suggest.13

One of NATO’s concerns is securing supply routes in times of an imminent threat. Even though the three Baltic states and Poland have just started the process of connecting their countries with a uniform railway system, NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, as well as additional military equipment, would have to be transported by air or shipped by sea during the coming years.

Complicating the situation, Russia has increasingly invested in a sophisticated network of “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) deployments, causing concern that Moscow could block sea and air routes.14 Because NATO officials are taking the Russian A2/AD capability seriously, Poland ordered 40 highly capable, stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) for its F-16 fighter-jet fleet and is reportedly in the process of purchasing 70 JASSM cruise missiles with extended ranges of more than 900 kilometers.15 Those missiles can be considered a significant improvement in NATO’s overall capabilities to hold Russian A2/AD assets at risk. 

The Russian A2/AD deployments notably are not aimed exclusively at suppressing NATO supply routes. They also serve the legitimate Russian interest of defending Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave on the Baltic Sea, in a scenario where NATO would be the attacker.

The United States faces the question of how to deal with Russia’s nuclear signaling. Some U.S. experts continue to urge NATO to answer the Russian actions.16 They refer to the alleged Russian doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” meaning that Russia could employ limited tactical nuclear weapons strikes in order to signal resolve in a conventional confrontation. Their concern is that Russia could present NATO with a fait accompli that the alliance, even if it desired, could not counter. 

In order to “close the credibility gap,”17 they call on NATO to increase the readiness levels of its forward-deployed nuclear assets in Europe, begin integrating conventional and nuclear forces in its exercises again, and further strengthen its declaratory nuclear policy. In fact, the United States is already spending large amounts to increase the perceived utility of its nonstrategic nuclear forces based in Europe through development of a modernized gravity bomb and modernized aircraft to deliver it. 

Calling on NATO to close the credibility gap appears to be an echo of the Cold War debate about Soviet attempts to decouple Western Europe from U.S. nuclear guarantees. For the time being, however, it seems that Moscow is much more convinced by U.S. guarantees than are some Western strategists. Further, there is not much in terms of official Russian documents, posture, or exercises that support the hypothesis of a Russian escalate to de-escalate doctrine confined to Europe.18 In fact, most of the more recent Russian maneuvers end with a simulated strategic nuclear strike.19 The Russian silence about the alleged doctrine appears to signal first and foremost unpredictability, which would fit into the general pattern of ambiguous behavior. 

The new U.S. administration must also consider how much control of the post-Soviet space matters to essential U.S. interests. The outgoing administration did not bow to calls20 for arming Ukraine. Instead, it ceded the diplomatic initiative to Germany and France and pushed the EU to join sanctions on Russia. This policy has harmed the Russian economy and resulted in a protracted, low-level conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Washington is basically confronted with a formidable dilemma. The United States has to try to dissuade Russia from further violating the post-Cold War European security order and to ensure that every country has the sovereign right to choose its economic, political, and military arrangements. Yet, U.S. leverage is limited, and the Kremlin has already de facto achieved its main goal, that is, a halt to further NATO/EU enlargement into the post-Soviet space.

Revisiting the issue of arming Ukraine might make matters worse. Moscow has proven its determination to go to great lengths to prevent Ukraine from regaining control over the Donbas region. Although it could provide more lethal weapons to Kiev, the United States would be likely to end up in a proxy war with Russia, a scenario where Moscow’s incentive to prevail would exceed Washington’s. Moreover, the people of Ukraine would pay most of the humanitarian costs of a full-fledged war with Russia, and the already struggling EU could be confronted with yet another wave of refugees.

Trump’s Conundrum

Trump’s remarks during the U.S. political campaign provide some clues about the new president’s thinking. For instance, he has conditioned U.S. defense of its major allies,21 saying other NATO members must pay more toward their own defense. More unnerving for most European leaders and U.S. foreign policy experts, he has praised Putin’s leadership qualities and even implied recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.22

A Polish Army soldier sits in a tank as a NATO flag flies behind during exercises of the alliance’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force on June 18, 2015 in Zagan, Poland. The task force is NATO’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Troops from Germany, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Belgium took part. (Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)Although it is too soon to know how the Trump administration will approach Russia and Europe, it is possible to identify challenges he will encounter and offer recommendations on how to meet them.

As some of his remarks suggest, Trump could end up giving the Kremlin what it wants, that is a bilateral modus vivendi of noninterference in the mutual spheres of privileged interest, meaning NATO territory here and the post-Soviet space there, while pressuring NATO allies to pay more of the defense burden. This is highly problematic for NATO member states and for some members of the U.S. Republican establishment for a number of reasons.

•   Further accommodating Russia might be perceived in Russia and other states as rewarding international aggression. The Kremlin could misread any such decision as a sign of U.S. weakness and an opportunity to exert more military pressure.

•   The consensus among U.S. policy-makers and particularly Republican-leaning experts is that the United States is militarily superior to Russia, although some argue that gap is closing, and that concessions should not be granted to a weaker opponent, in particular when that opponent is actively challenging U.S. interests.

•   The U.S. conservative political establishment still has a strong, albeit inconsistent, sense of mission when it comes to the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, and Russia has emerged as one of the most vocal challengers of such “Western values.” 

•   Any such understanding would risk alienating European NATO members that feel most threatened by Moscow, potentially splitting the alliance. 

•   Further, a European settlement on Russian terms, in combination with conditioning U.S. defense commitments, may create negative ripple effects in other parts of the world, most obviously in Northeast Asia, where U.S. allies could start fundamentally questioning U.S. extended deterrence guarantees.

Alternatively, Trump, heeding advice from Republican foreign policy hawks, could decide to show he can drive a harder bargain than his predecessor, President Barack Obama.Trump’s latest remarks about his readiness to engage in nuclear arms races could point in that direction.23 In that case, U.S. pushback against Russia could entail regular U.S. exercises close to Russian airspace, more explicit threats of U.S. nuclear weapons use, cyberattacks against Russian infrastructure, and the unilateral abrogation of arms control agreements such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the INF Treaty, or the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the 1997 political accord that conditionally bars the permanent deployment of substantial NATO combat forces to central and eastern Europe.

Such actions would present problems not only to Russia but also to Washington and its NATO allies.

•   Given Trump’s past erratic comments and the fact that the United States already has the most powerful military in the world, Moscow might feel very much threatened. It could prompt Russia to backpedal in order to de-escalate. Alternatively, the Kremlin may misperceive those signals as signs of U.S. offensive intentions and take countermeasures. Russia could even double down, resulting in a risky security dilemma that would be almost impossible to manage.

•   NATO member states might disagree on the logic and expected payoff of such a strategy, creating a schism that threatens alliance coherence.

•   Loose nuclear talk would undermine long-standing principles and norms of international conduct and thus create negative ripple effects beyond the immediate U.S.-Russian relationship, damaging the international reputation of the United States.

There is the possibility that not much changes in U.S.-Russian relations, particularly given Trump’s predisposition to “make America great again” by focusing attention and resources on domestic problems. In that case, the administration would be well advised to prioritize its responses in Europe. Paramount priority must be given to the safety and security of NATO member states and making sure that NATO maintains a unified position. Protecting Ukraine is a related but subordinate interest and should be handled in close coordination with European allies.

Recommendations 

The best way to deal with Russia is to remain calm and patient. In this regard, a good personal relationship between Trump and Putin might be helpful. Washington has already underscored its commitment to NATO’s easternmost members. It should continue to do so through regular and visible high-level visits, consultations, and affirmations of U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision. 

If the Trump administration feels that some allies are not meeting their defense spending obligations, it should seek ways to encourage deeper military integration, cooperation, and defense planning among European NATO members. In addition, Washington could consider prepositioning additional military equipment in western Europe.

The Trump administration should be ready to publicly denounce Russian nuclear signaling and intimidation attempts whenever they occur. Washington should seek the broadest international support possible for doing so.

As a matter of high priority, Washington should focus on conflict management with the aim of preventing inadvertent or accidental escalation, in particular because Russia is employing high-risk tactics. If the ongoing NATO-Russian talks on military incidents are not yielding tangible results, Washington should seek direct talks with the aim of reinvigorating, modernizing, and perhaps multilateralizing earlier Cold War bilateral agreements.24

Given the high probability of misperceptions and misunderstandings and the Russian strategy of drawing NATO ever deeper into a nonkinetic conflict, Washington should exercise restraint. If Russia is not significantly increasing its military presence along the Baltic borders or the Black Sea periphery of NATO, Washington should not give it an excuse to do so. Instead, it should invest more time in diplomatic efforts to assure allies and lower tensions with Russia.

The United States should leave NATO’s nuclear component untouched, avoid too much declaratory drivel, and leave the Russians in the dark instead.

The United States should not arm Ukraine. Russia will be able to counter militarily almost every step taken. Instead, Washington and its allies should provide Kiev with much more economic support. The gravest political threat to the current leadership in the Kremlin is a prosperous and economically thriving Ukraine.

A cost-saving approach to defense lies in the realm of resilience. Washington should do everything possible to strengthen the resilience of the Baltic states. An eastern Ukraine-like scenario is only likely if their Russian minorities feel deeply disenfranchised or alienated. The United States therefore should keep a close watch on the state of educational, language, cultural, informational, anti-corruption, policing, and rule of law policies and should offer its help in a proactive manner.

On the sanctions policy, Washington should ensure the EU keeps firm because this is one of the only real forms of leverage the West possesses. 

Bilateral Arms Control

All this does not bode well for the bilateral arms control agenda. Arms control policies are built on certain recognition that preserving the status quo is beneficial. The United States and Russia, however, view each other at present as challenging the status quo.

The fact that Russia reaps benefits from its unpredictable behavior makes it necessary to change the Russian calculus so that Moscow views the gains from cooperation as outweighing those from confrontation. Yet, that would mean that Washington would have to be willing to offer something significant that goes beyond the immediate arms control goals of predictability, stability, and transparency.

U.S. sailors salute during the inauguration ceremony for the U.S. anti-missile station Aegis Ashore Romania (in the background) at the military base in Deveselu, Romania on May 12, 2016. Aegis Ashore, staffed by U.S. naval personnel, is the land-based version of the ship-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system. (Photo credit: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)An unofficial recognition of spheres of privileged interest, together with a more respectful relationship under Trump, could be something that interests Putin. Nevertheless, the widely shared disdain for arms control among many Republican policymakers would certainly work against a serious U.S. arms control push.

One of the true concerns of the Russian military is the conventional superiority of the combined forces of NATO. In turn, the regional Russian superiority in eastern Europe, particularly vis-à-vis the Baltic states, is a concern in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels. At the sub-regional level, Russia is concerned about the security of Kaliningrad. This Matryoshka doll-like situation offers at least the theoretical possibility of a quid pro quo arrangement for the wider Baltic region with mutual geographical limitations on manpower, equipment, and reinforcement capabilities, coupled with intrusive and verifiable transparency measures.25 

Another issue Washington should explore is Russia’s alleged breach of the INF Treaty. Since 2014, the U.S. government has accused Russia of violating the treaty by flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.26 Meanwhile, a U.S. report claimed that “Russia is producing more missiles than are needed to sustain a flight-test program,”suggesting that deployment may be imminent.27

Russia tabled a number of countercharges, among which was the claim that the U.S.-led Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense launchers being deployed in eastern Europe had been tested with systems banned under the INF Treaty, suggesting that Aegis Ashore could be used for offensive purposes. The scenario of a decapitating strike seems to rank quite prominently among Russian concerns.28

Much depends on Russian intentions. The agreement to address compliance issues by convening the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission in November for the first time in 13 years was a positive development. Yet if Moscow continues down the current path of producing and perhaps deploying new INF Treaty-range weapons, Europe risks entering a new Cold War “Euromissiles” crisis, awakening some of the turmoil encountered during the 1970s and 1980s.

If the Russian rationale is really based on fear of a decapitating strike, U.S. officials could consider options to reassure Moscow about the Aegis Ashore launchers deployed in Romania, such as technical consultations and site visits, demonstrating to Russian experts that the United States is ready to undergo hardware changes that make it technically impossible for these launchers to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles.

If much of Russia’s concern stems from third-country nuclear and conventional missiles within the INF Treaty range (e.g., China’s capabilities), Washington and Moscow can consider reviving a 2007 UN General Assembly initiative put forward by Russia and supported by the United States that called for a multilateralization of the INF Treaty. Putin’s latest remarks seem to point in that direction.29 In this way, both sides could take account of emerging technologies and the changing geopolitical landscape, which no longer may be resolved in the traditional bilateral manner.

Either approach would require both sides to pursue a face-saving solution. A grimmer scenario has both sides finding powerful incentives to walk away from the INF Treaty. Trump adviser and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who was among the candidates for secretary of state, has advocated withdrawal from the INF Treaty, referring to states such as China, Iran, and North Korea, which “face no limits on developing intermediate-range weapons.”30

Even though both sides can extend New START for another five years, the U.S. Senate will most likely not give its advice and consent to any follow-on agreement absent a resolution of the INF Treaty issue. The Trump administration might even use Russian noncompliance and nuclear modernizations as reasons to opt out of New START implementation. Moscow might be ready to go down that road as well.

A follow-on agreement to New START is important, particularly in order to understand both sides’ nuclear modernization activities, to preserve transparency, to prevent backsliding into arms race instability, and to convince non-nuclear powers that Russia and the United States take seriously their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Washington and its European allies will need to remind Moscow that, without INF Treaty compliance, further strategic nuclear dialogue and a New START follow-on may be impossible, closing off Russia’s most productive path toward preserving its influence and enhancing its security.

Therefore, the new U.S. administration should engage with Moscow as early as possible on arms control issues. It needs to remind the Kremlin that respect for Russia will be influenced by Russia’s respect for mutual security. It also needs to remember that existing problems will not go away by acting as if arms control talks are a reward for Russia. The reality is just the opposite: arms control talks are in the genuine national interest of all parties—the United States, Russia, and the international community.

ENDNOTES

1.   Thomas W. Lippman, “Clinton, Yeltsin Agree on Arms Cuts and NATO,” The Washington Post, March 22, 1997.

2.   Charles Clover, “Russia Announces ‘Spheres of Interest,’” Financial Times, August 31, 2008.

3.   This belt stretches from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which Russia fuels and manages at the same time through arms sales and political pressure; along the protracted, open conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova; over the pro-Russian, authoritarian-ruled Belarus; and up to the Baltic states, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries, the latter of which Russia has also repeatedly intimidated throughout the last two years.

4.    President of Russia, “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club,” October 27, 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53151.

5.   Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy,” Proliferation Papers, No. 54 (November 2015), https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pp54adamsky.pdf.

6.   William G. Pierce, Douglas G. Douds, and Michael A. Marra, “Understanding Coercive Gradualism,” Parameters, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Autumn 2015): 51-61.

7.   Lidia Kelly, “Russia Can Turn U.S. to Radioactive Ash - Kremlin-Backed Journalist,” Reuters, March 16, 2014.

8.   Adam Withnall, “Vladimir Putin Says Russia Was Preparing to Use Nuclear Weapons ‘If Necessary’ and Blames U.S. for Ukraine Crisis,” The Independent, March 15, 2015.

9.   The end of the most recent Kavkaz (South) 2016 exercise coincided with the Russian military test-firing a modernized Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. Pavel Felgenhauer, “Russian Military Resists Proposed Budget Cuts, Prepares for Major Ground War,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 15, 2016, https://jamestown.org/program/russian-military-resists-proposed-budget-cuts-prepares-for-major-ground-war/#sthash.Jmzv79tt.dpuf.

10.   Alexei Anishchuk, “Don’t Mess With Nuclear Russia, Putin Says,” Reuters, August 29, 2014.

11.   Dmitry Solovyov and Lidia Kelly, “Russia Warns of Retaliation as NATO Plans More Deployments in Eastern Europe,” Reuters, May 4, 2016.

12.   Anna Maria Dyner, “Russia Beefs Up Military Potential in the Country’s Western Areas,” PISM Bulletin, No. 35 (885) (June 13, 2016), http://www.pism.pl/publications/bulletin/no-35-885.

13.   Elbridge Colby and Jonathan Solomon, “For Peace With Russia, Prepare for War in Europe: NATO and Conventional Deterrence,” War on the Rocks, April 20, 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/04/for-peace-with-russia-prepare-for-war-in-europe-nato-and-conventional-deterrence/.

14.   Giulia Paravicini, “New Chess Game Between West and Russia,” Politico, July 1, 2016, http://www.politico.eu/article/natos-struggle-to-close-defence-gaps-against-russia-a2ad/.

15.   Ben Judson, “Poland Wants Extended-Range JASSM Missiles,” Defense News, November 29, 2016. http://www.defensenews.com/articles/poland-wants-extended-range-jassm-missiles.

16.   Matthew Kroenig, “Facing Reality: Getting NATO Ready for a New Cold War,” Survival, Vol. 57, No. 1 (2015): 49-70.

17.    Jacek Durkalec and Matthew Kroenig, “NATO’s Nuclear Deterrence: Closing Credibility Gaps,” The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2016): 37-50.

18.   Olga Oliker has illustrated that in a very detailed and convincing study. Olga Oliker, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160504_Oliker_RussiasNuclearDoctrine_Web.pdf.

19.   Felgenhauer, “Russian Military Resists Proposed Budget Cuts, Prepares for Major Ground War.”

20.   Ivo Daalder et al., “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” Atlantic Council of the United States, February 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/UkraineReport_February2015_FINAL.pdf.

21.   Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger, “Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views,” The New York Times, March 26, 2016.

22.   Nick Gass, “Trump Tries to Clean Up on Crimea,” Politico, August 1, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/trump-clarifies-crimea-ukraine-226497.

23.   Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger, “Trump Says U.S. Would ‘Outmatch’ Rivals in a New Nuclear Arms Race,” The New York Times, December 23, 2016.

24.   Among those could be the 1972 agreement on the prevention of incidents on and over the high seas and the 1989 agreement on the prevention of dangerous military activities. For the recommendations of the Deep Cuts Commission on the creation of a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and SHAPE, see Deep Cuts Commission, “Back From the Brink: Toward Restraint and Dialogue Between Russia and the West,” Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, June 2016, p. 17, http://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/Third_Report_of_the_Deep_Cuts_Commission_English.pdf.

25.   I am grateful to Josh Pollack for the Matryoshka doll metaphor.

26.   Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “2016 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 11, 2016, http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2016/255651.htm.

27.   Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Is Moving Ahead With Missile Program That Violates Treaty, U.S. Officials Say,” The New York Times, October 19, 2016.

28.   Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Comment by the Information and Press Department on the U.S. Department of State’s Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 15, 2016, http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2237950

29.   President of Russia, “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club.”

30.   John R. Bolton and John Yoo, “An Obsolete Nuclear Treaty Even Before Russia Cheated,” The Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2014.


Ulrich Kühn is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, a fellow with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, and founder and a permanent member of the Deep Cuts Commission.

The arms control dialogue between Russia and the United States is stagnating, and the risk of conflict, whether by intent or miscalculation, is growing.

Europeans Seek Conventional Arms Talks

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

Fifteen countries in Europe are calling for a “relaunch of conventional arms control” negotiations with Russia amid concerns about the deteriorating security situation in their region due to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

In a joint statement Nov. 25, the foreign ministers of the 15 nations said that the existing pillars of the European conventional arms control architecture, namely the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the 2011 Vienna Document, and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, are “crumbling” and “need to be strengthened.” They cited “an urgent need to re-establish strategic stability, restraint, predictability and verifiable transparency and to reduce military risks” and urged “a structured dialogue on conventional arms control in Europe.”

Foreign ministers attending a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe December 8-9, 2016, in Hamburg, Germany, called for “creating an environment conducive to reinvigorating conventional arms control.” (Photo credit: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)The ministers said that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) should be a “central forum for such a dialogue.” The 57-member OSCE works to facilitate a comprehensive approach to European security.

The countries that joined the statement are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. All are OSCE members. 

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier first floated the proposal in a Project Syndicate op-ed on Aug. 26, citing “new and deep rifts” between Russia and Western nations that would likely endure for the near future. Further, he warned of a “new arms race” in Europe due to developing technologies such as offensive cybercapabilities and “new combat scenarios” such as smaller, more mobile fighting units that “are not covered” by existing arms control regimes.

Steinmeier said that a new arms control dialogue should address regional military force ceilings and transparency measures; take into account new military capabilities and strategies, including smaller, mobile units; include new weapons systems, such as drones; permit effective verification in times of crisis; and be applicable where territorial status is disputed. 

Steinmeier conceded that such an undertaking might not succeed “at a time when world order is eroding and relations with Russia are strained” but that “it would be irresponsible not to try.” 

Germany served as chair of the OSCE in 2016. Austria is the chair in 2017, as the position rotates annually. 

The initial U.S. reaction was lukewarm. Bruce Turner, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said that Russia’s ongoing challenge to the core tenets of European security “make contemplation of a new arms control agreement in Europe difficult” in remarks in October at an OSCE conference in Vienna.

Instead, the United States “believes that it makes more sense to work to preserve, strengthen, and modernize our existing agreements, and begin a dialogue on our security concerns” in the OSCE, said Turner, who handles European security, technology, and implementation in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Turner cited as a key U.S. goal modernizing the Vienna Document, a set of politically binding confidence- and security-building measures designed to increase openness and transparency concerning military activities conducted by OSCE members.

Russia has taken a wait-and-see approach. In a speech at the United Nations in October, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the nonproliferation and arms control department in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Steinmeier’s proposal “merits thorough analysis.”

“We will see how Germany’s NATO allies will respond to this initiative,” he added. 

In a Dec. 24 email to Arms Control Today, Ulrich Kühn, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the future of the 15-nation initiative is uncertain, citing the transition to a new administration in the United States, Austria’s assumption of the OSCE chairmanship, and the fact that Steinmeier soon will be leaving his foreign minister post.

At the OSCE ministerial meeting in Hamburg on Dec. 8-9, the 57 participating states issued a statement declaring that they “will work towards creating an environment conducive to reinvigorating conventional arms control” and confidence- and security-building measures in Europe.

Germany’s foreign minister cites the risk of a “new arms race” in Europe.

NATO Highlights Role of Nuclear Weapons

September 2016

By Kingston Reif

Leaders of the 28 member countries of NATO strongly criticized Russian nuclear behavior and reaffirmed the security role played by U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe at their July 8-9 summit meeting in Warsaw, Poland. The sections of the alliance statement, or communiqué, devoted to nuclear weapons are nearly three times as long as those issued at the 2014 summit in the United Kingdom. (See ACT, October 2014.

In Warsaw, NATO leaders characterized as “destabilizing” Russia’s “irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric, military concept and underlying posture.” Alliance officials have expressed concern over the past two years about Russian actions such as more nuclear bomber flights close to the borders of alliance members, more nuclear exercises, and nuclear threats directed at NATO members. (See ACT, November 2015.)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses press following the meeting on Afghanistan with Resolute Support Operational Partner Nations at the level of heads of state and government in Warsaw on July 6, 2016.[Photo credit: NATO]

The communiqué explicitly states that NATO’s deterrence posture “relies, in part, on the United States’ nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and on capabilities and infrastructure provided by allies concerned.” This language is a significant departure from the 2014 communiqué and the alliance’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review report, neither of which explicitly referred to the need for U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. 

In addition, NATO countries stated in Warsaw that “[a]ny employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict” and warned that “NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable.” The 2014 communiqué did not include these declarations.

Alliance members reiterated their desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and the role of nuclear weapons in alliance strategy. But the communiqué expressed “regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favorable today.” The United States is thought to deploy approximately 200 tactical B61 gravity bombs in Europe in support of NATO. 

Despite speculation ahead of the Warsaw meeting that the alliance might make changes to NATO’s nuclear posture, such as increasing the readiness level of alliance nuclear forces, there is nothing specific in the communiqué about readiness. (See ACT, January/February 2016.

The alliance also announced in Warsaw that its missile defense system had achieved an “initial operational capability.” The communiqué said the activation of the missile defense site in Romania in May and the transfer of the command and control of the site to NATO is “a new milestone” in the development of NATO’s missile defense plan that “offers a stronger capability to defend” NATO members in southern Europe. (See ACT, June 2016.) Russian President Vladimir Putin asserts that the missile defense system threatens his country, despite U.S. assurances to the contrary.

Leaders of the 28 member countries of NATO strongly criticized Russian nuclear behavior and reaffirmed the security role played by U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe...

NATO’s Missile Defense Plan Must Adapt to the Real World

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill. One of the biggest challenges for NATO at its July 8-9 summit will be to adopt measures that reassure allies in the face of Russian intimidation without provoking an escalation in already high tensions between Russia and the West. Given that missile defense has been a driver of tensions between Moscow and Washington since Ronald Reagan launched his Star Wars plan to render ballistic missiles “impotent and obsolete,” one of the best ways to achieve reassurance and avoid provocation would be to alter the existing timetable for deploying more capable...

New Report Calls for Russia and the West to Move Back from the Brink

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For Immediate Release: June 21, 2016

Media Contacts: Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104; Ulrich Kuehn, Researcher, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, University of Hamburg, +49 (1) 76 811219 75

(Mosow, Berlin, Washington)—A new report from a high-level group of international security experts from Russia, the United States, and Germany recommends that the West and Russia build on a number of existing arms control and confidence-building measures in order to avoid further exacerbation of the increasingly tense and dangerous relationship between Russia and the West, particularly along the border between Russia and NATO member states.

The third report of the Deep Cuts Commission describes 15 key recommendations to help address the most acute security concerns in Europe—particularly in the Baltic area—and increase U.S.-Russian nuclear transparency and predictability.

“The prime objective for the next few years should be limiting the potential for dangerous military incidents that can escalate out of control,” the authors argue. “Russia and the West must come back from the brink. They need to better manage their conflictual relationship. Restraint and dialogue are now needed more than ever,” they write.

The Commission’s recommendations include:

    • In order to reduce current security concerns in the Baltic area, NATO and Russia should initiate a dialogue on possible mutual restraint measures. All states should adhere to the NATO-Russia Founding Act. A NATO-Russia dialogue should aim at increasing the security of all states in the Baltic area by encompassing reciprocal and verifiable commitments. A sub-regional arms control regime could consist of interlocking elements such as restraint commitments, limitations, CSBMs, and a sub-regional Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism.
    • In light of the increasing dangers of military incidents between Russia, the United States and other NATO member states, the United States and Russia should revive a dialogue on nuclear risk reduction measures, capable of addressing risks posed by different sorts of emergencies in near real-time. The United States and Russia could consider creating a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Such a cell could be linked to or established in parallel with a new European Risk Reduction Center.
    • States-parties to the Treaty on Open Skies should pay more attention to the continued operation of Open Skies. They should strengthen its operation by devoting equal resources to upgrading observation equipment.
    • Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) participating States should consider measures to give effect to the principle of non-intervention into internal affairs. For this purpose, the OSCE could set up a commission which would carefully look into the issue from a legal point of view and explore possibilities for a new OSCE states-based mechanism. Beyond, OSCE participating States should prepare for a long-term endeavor leading to a Helsinki-like conference with the aim of reinvigorating and strengthening Europe’s guiding security principles.
    • The United States and Russia should commit to attempting to resolve each other’s compliance concerns with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by supplementing ongoing diplomatic dialogue with technical expertise, either by convening the Special Verification Commission or a separate bilateral experts group mandated to appropriately address all relevant treaty-related compliance concerns. Further on, the United States and Russia should address the issue of supplementing the treaty by taking account of technological and political developments that have occurred since the treaty’s entry into force.
    • The United States and Russia should address the destabilizing effects of nuclear-armed cruise missile proliferation by agreeing on specific confidence-building measures. Together with other nations, they should address the challenges of horizontal cruise missile proliferation by reinforcing the relevant Missile Technology Control Regime’s restrictions and by endorsing the inclusion of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles/unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UAVs/UCAVs) in the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.
    • Moscow and Washington should exercise restraint in Russian and U.S. nuclear force modernization programs, remaining within the New START limits and acting consistent with the intent of the treaty. The United States should forego development of the LRSO and Russia should reciprocate by phasing-out of new nuclear-armed ALCMs. The United States should show restraint in ballistic missile deployments consistent with its policy of defending against limited threats. NATO should follow through on its commitment to adapt its ballistic missile deployments in accordance with reductions in the ballistic missile proliferation threats.

    • Russia and the United States should work toward early discussions on a possible follow-on strategic arms reduction treaty. They should be able to envision reductions to a level of 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 1,000 deployed strategic warheads during the next decade. These discussions should explore options for exchanging measures of reciprocal restraint and seek to address other issues of mutual concern under a combined umbrella discussion of strategic stability.

Beyond these recommendations, the experts identify a number of additional measures which could foster confidence in and maintain focus on the goal of further nuclear disarmament.

The complete report is available online.

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Description: 

The West and Russia need to build on existing arms control measures to avoid exacerbation of the increasingly tense relationship between them, according to a group of international security experts.

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Just Leave It: NATO’s Nuclear Weapons Policy at the Warsaw Summit

June 2016

By Tom Sauer

The biennial NATO summit in Poland next month comes at a time of deeply strained relations between NATO and Russia. The Russian occupation of Crimea is a direct challenge to internationally agreed principles. 

Other indications of Russia’s assertive foreign policy are its incursions into eastern Ukraine, brinkmanship with military aircraft and ships near the borders of NATO member states, aggressive nuclear rhetoric, and military intervention in Syria. 

No wonder that fear in many eastern European states, despite being members of NATO, has been on the rise since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. That is why the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014 tried to reassure eastern European member states with the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, the stationing of rotating NATO (including U.S.) troops, and military exercises.

Apparently, eastern European member states are not yet fully satisfied. At the upcoming summit in Warsaw, although there are equally pressing challenges at NATO’s southern flank due to the conflict in Syria, eastern European states are expected to demand a reinforcement of NATO’s reassurance and deterrence policy.

Tellingly, more and more voices are calling for a review of NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy that would strengthen the role of nuclear weapons inside the alliance.1 That would be a dramatic change as the role of nuclear weapons in NATO doctrine has gradually decreased since the end of the Cold War. The numbers of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe have come down from about 2,500 in 1993 to about 180 today.2 The phrase from the 1999 Strategic Concept that nuclear weapons “will continue to fulfill an essential role” to preserve peace was significantly altered in the most recent version of the document 11 years later.3 Instead the current version states, “Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and convention capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy.”4 Similarly, the two specific references to the “nuclear forces in Europe” were deleted. The only remaining reference to those forces is the pledge to “ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.”5 Moreover, the readiness levels of these weapons have been drastically reduced since the end of the Cold War. Contrary to the past, it would take weeks or even months to be able to use the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe.6 Finally, in contrast to the previous version, the 2010 Strategic Concept refers twice to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

After 25 years of scaling back its reliance on nuclear weapons, is NATO going to change course on that front? Last October 8, at a meeting of NATO defense ministers, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Adam Thomson, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to NATO, publicly stated that NATO should consider steps to improve the way it integrates conventional and nuclear deterrence.7 

Two months later, Polish Deputy Defense Minister Tomasz Szatkowski proposed stationing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Poland. That would contravene the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which stipulated that NATO had “no intention, no plan, and no reason” to station nuclear weapons on the territory of the new members.8 The Polish Ministry of National Defence immediately denied that Szatkowki’s statement was a formal proposal. 

Nevertheless, NATO quietly is beefing up its nuclear posture. Polish F-16s participated for the first time on the sidelines of a NATO nuclear strike exercise at the end of 2014. As a clear signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, four B-52 bombers flew a nuclear strike mission over the North Pole and the North Sea in a bomber exercise in April 2015. Although these planes did not have nuclear weapons on board, they were equipped to carry 80 nuclear air-launched cruise missiles.9

In the run-up to the Warsaw summit, a high-level NATO working group is trying to come up with concrete proposals to strengthen NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy with respect to force structure, declaratory policy, and operational policy. Although there is no consensus on stationing B61 nuclear bombs in eastern Europe or on upgrading NATO’s nuclear hardware in general, one idea that is gaining strength within the working group is enhancing the readiness of the NATO dual-capable aircraft—those that are able to transport conventional and nuclear weapons—stationed in the five remaining host nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. The group also is considering ideas for organizing more nuclear exercises and being more transparent about them in the hope of strengthening deterrence, revising NATO’s communications strategy on nuclear deterrence, and strengthening nuclear expertise within NATO.10 

This article will describe and evaluate the arguments of the proponents of changing NATO’s nuclear weapons policy. It will conclude with a discussion of alternative options.

Reasons for a Review 

The advocates of change point out that the last revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept was conducted more than five years ago. Another key exercise in this area, the Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, was conducted from 2011 to 2012 and also predates the Ukraine crisis. The strategic environment has changed, and as a result, NATO policy, including nuclear weapons policy, should change, the advocates argue. They also point to a change in Russia’s nuclear doctrine that apparently includes the possibility of early use of limited nuclear strikes in response to a large-scale conventional weapons attack by the West in the hope of de-escalating the crisis at hand. 

Their arguments boil down to two objectives: first, strengthening NATO’s nuclear weapons policy in order to reassure eastern European states and, second, deterring Russia. The two are related as deterrence may strengthen reassurance, although only if the deterrent is perceived as credible. 

Eastern European states argue that NATO’s nuclear weapons policy should be updated. Because they are geographically close to Russia and some of them were invaded by the USSR during the Cold War, they want guarantees that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty will be implemented if needed. Article 5 states that an attack against one member state will be regarded as an attack on NATO as a whole and will trigger a common response. 

The advocates of the update want the rest of NATO to believe that conventional and nuclear weapons can be of help in this regard. Because the role of nuclear weapons has gradually diminished since the end of the Cold War, it is time to reverse this trend, they argue.11 They believe that NATO’s policy of extended nuclear deterrence helps deter Russia. According to this argument, the nuclear umbrella, partly in the form of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in western Europe, diminishes the chances that Putin will repeat in the Baltic states what he did in Crimea. For these reasons, they believe not only that the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in western Europe should stay, but also that NATO should increase the role of nuclear weapons.12

A Defensive Russia

The biggest mistake by NATO would be not to respond to the fears in eastern Europe. That said, threat perceptions are subjective by nature and can be heavily influenced by factors related to historical experiences and domestic politics, including the media. There are three reasons why Russia is not likely to invade and occupy any eastern European member state of NATO. 

First, Russia is not an expansionist country. The reason that it invaded Crimea can be categorized as defensive. Large nations defend their spheres of influence, and Russia regarded Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. That geostrategic constellation is also recognized by realists such as Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.13 They blame the West as well as Putin for having created the Ukraine crisis. Luckily, the West can by definition not repeat in eastern Europe the mistakes it made vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia because eastern Europe already belongs to the Western sphere of influence, something that has been more or less accepted by Russia. Even if Putin would like to live in a country as big as the former Soviet Union, he is fully aware that that is not going to happen. 

Second, there is a world of difference between occupying all or part of a country of which a large majority of the population stands behind the occupier, as in Crimea, and a country in which only a relatively small percentage of the population would support the occupation, as in the Baltic states. By invading and occupying one or more of the Baltic states, Putin would import too many problems. The Russian economy, which may determine the survival of the regime, is in trouble. The international reaction to the occupation of the Crimea, including the economic sanctions by the West, is hurting Russia economically. Putin has every reason to avoid making matters worse. 

Third, through NATO, the U.S. and western European spheres of influences have been institutionalized. The Baltic states belong to NATO; Ukraine did not. The Ukrainians might have hoped that the West would help them militarily. The Baltic states may hope for the same thing, but their hope has a much firmer foundation. NATO cannot do otherwise because helping allies militarily is NATO’s core business. Putin knows that very well. Although Putin can make mistakes, his record in foreign and domestic politics shows that he calculates rather well. He rightly estimated that occupying Crimea would not stir a military reaction by the West. With regard to the Baltic states, his calculations will be different. 

For all these reasons, it is reasonable to assume that the odds are that Russia is not going to invade and occupy the Baltic states, let alone Poland or Romania.

Providing Reassurance

That said, NATO should do as much as it can to reassure its eastern European states. These reassurances, however, should meet two conditions. They should be credible, and they should not provoke Russia as that could make matters even worse. 

With respect to the first condition, the question is whether nuclear weapons are a credible means of reassuring eastern European member states. Tallinn is fully aware that NATO is not going to use nuclear weapons, even in the extremely unlikely event of a Russian occupation of Estonia. Updating NATO’s policy of extended nuclear deterrence should therefore not be on the agenda. 

There is an alternative that is much more credible than nuclear weapons, namely the forward deployment of usable weapons. That would mean conventional weapons and troops, even if on a rotational basis. That is exactly what NATO has been doing until now and what Carter recently described.14 The Warsaw summit should restrict itself to fine-tuning and implementing the decisions made at the Wales summit.

Deter Putin in a Credible Way

It is difficult to see how NATO’s nuclear weapons policy can contribute to reassuring eastern European states unless one believes that these weapons deter Putin. That raises the second argument, deterrence. NATO should enhance deterrence for the very unlikely case that Putin is going to miscalculate. As in the case of reassurances, the deterrent should be credible and should not provoke Russia. 

The credibility of a deterrent depends on the capabilities and the intention to use them. That is the reason why conventional deterrence is more credible than nuclear deterrence, especially after 70 years of nonuse of nuclear weapons. Each day that nuclear weapons are not used on the battlefield, the norm against using these weapons is strengthened. Every day, it becomes more difficult for a U.S. president to authorize the use of these catastrophic weapons. 

That applies even more to nuclear weapons that are meant to defend other states under the notion of extended nuclear deterrence. In his standard work on deterrence, Patrick Morgan wrote, “If the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe, would it be rational for the United States to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons if it knew that it would thereby provoke massive damage to itself in return? The answer, of course, is ‘no’.”15 It therefore is not rational for eastern European states to cling to the belief that NATO nuclear weapons, even the strategic ones, help much in deterring Putin.

That reasoning applies even more to the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed in western Europe. Practically speaking, the use of these tactical nuclear weapons requires the consent of all NATO member states. It is extremely unlikely that all states will agree to use the weapons, even in the unlikely event of the occupation of the Baltic states. That is because the consequences of the radioactive fallout may be felt in the Baltic states and other NATO member states. 

Furthermore, the 2010 Strategic Concept moved away from the role of tactical nuclear weapons and emphasized the role of strategic nuclear weapons as the key element of the nuclear umbrella. Note that the Strategic Concept was not written in times when the relationship with Russia was smooth, but after friction with Russia in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans, after two rounds of NATO expansion, after the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008 that stated that Georgia and Ukraine “will” become NATO members, and after the Georgian-Russian war that was partly the result of that declaration. The threat assessment in 2010 was different from the one today, but the difference should be put in perspective. Despite the troubles with Russia at that time, the role of NATO’s nuclear weapons was diminished in the 2010 Strategic Concept and the issue was not discussed at the 2014 Wales summit. It would be inconsistent to reverse this policy now. 

Putin knows that NATO is not going to use U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed in western Europe to protect the Baltic states. The authors of a recent RAND report based on a tabletop simulation exercise argue convincingly that these tactical weapons do not make any difference.16 To conclude, enhancing the readiness of the dual-capable aircraft in western Europe will not make the slightest difference in Putin’s calculations. As a result, an update of NATO’s nuclear policy will not strengthen deterrence of Russia and cannot help reassure the eastern Europeans. 

Likely Negative Consequences

Emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s nuclear doctrine at the Warsaw summit is likely to have substantial negative consequences. First, it will complicate the relationship with Russia, especially in arms control, an area in which there already is an impasse. Strengthening the role of nuclear weapons on the Western side will only fuel the nuclear arms race, which is definitely not in the interest of NATO. If Putin has increased the role of nuclear weapons in Russia, that does not mean that NATO should follow suit, especially because NATO is powerful enough in the non-nuclear realm. One of the reasons why Russia’s defense depends on nuclear weapons is that it is compensating for its inferior conventional forces, just as NATO did during the Cold War.

Second, strengthening NATO’s nuclear weapons policy will have negative domestic political consequences in the countries that host tactical nuclear weapons. The odds are that these weapons will become more politically exposed if NATO decides to reverse its decades-old practice of lowering the readiness of the dual-capable aircraft. If NATO is going to do that, the pressure in the host nations to remove these weapons will certainly go up. That is a recipe for further friction within NATO. 

The public in the host countries, especially in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, already has been asking for more than a decade to remove these weapons from their territories. The Belgian parliament approved resolutions in this regard, most recently in 2015. In the Netherlands, the majority parties agreed to a parliamentary motion in 2013 asking the government not to make the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter nuclear capable. The 2009 German government declaration included a paragraph asking for the removal of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. The answer from NATO was always that its nuclear weapons policy could not be changed except in the framework of the next Strategic Concept. If that is indeed the logic, NATO cannot change the policy in Warsaw because there will not be a new Strategic Concept produced there. 

Third, there is also a world beyond NATO and Russia that is increasingly impatient with the pace of nuclear disarmament. Partly as a result of this frustration, the humanitarian initiative arose.17 If NATO, the most powerful alliance in history, even without nuclear weapons, decides at the upcoming summit to reverse its decades-old policy of delegitimizing nuclear weapons and to rely on them even more, the odds are that such a decision will cause even more friction with many non-nuclear-weapon states outside NATO. In all likelihood, it will further diminish the chances that nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conferences will succeed in the future, and it will decrease the prospects for additional nonproliferation measures. One can also predict that the push for a nuclear weapons ban will draw even more support, which in turn will provoke societal debates within NATO member states about the role of nuclear weapons.18 Increasing even slightly and in whatever way the role of nuclear weapons in NATO at the Warsaw summit would go against the tide of history. The numbers of nuclear weapons worldwide are going down. When the current tensions have subsided, NATO should remove the tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

Relations With Russia 

If a majority of NATO member states had believed that upgrading NATO’s extended nuclear weapons policy was the best thing to do to reassure eastern Europeans and deter Russia, they would have already done so at the NATO summit two years ago. That did not happen, and nothing in the post-Wales period suggests a different approach. That means that if eastern European member states, backed by France, which wants to delay the discussion about French nuclear weapons as long as possible, at the next summit insist on updating NATO’s nuclear weapons policy, countries that are opposed—the European countries discussed above and probably also the United States—will have to bargain as hard as the advocates of change in order to reach an end result that maintains the status quo. 

Russia has to be deterred with credible means, namely conventional weapons. Only a credible deterrent can reassure eastern European member states. Even better, NATO should start thinking about ways to restore a political relationship with Russia. That would be in the spirit of the Harmel doctrine, which regarded NATO as a political as well as a military organization. It is in the interest of all NATO member states not to make matters worse with Russia. Territory seized by the Islamic State group can be recaptured, but Russia will remain a neighbor of NATO in the future. NATO and Russia need each other to work together on issues such as containing the threat of international terrorism; stabilizing Syria, the rest of the Middle East, and Afghanistan; and preventing nuclear proliferation. 

NATO and Russia are doomed to cooperate. Halting the suspension of the NATO-Russia Council is a first step. The fact that the council reconvened in the second half of April after two years of inaction may be an indication that the height of the crisis has passed. To consolidate the cooperation, NATO and Russia can take other confidence- and security-building measures, including announcing and attending each other’s military exercises, discussing military doctrines with each other, and starting up new arms control negotiations, including with respect to tactical nuclear weapons. These arms control measures could include unilateral steps that the other side would be encouraged to reciprocate. 

In order to prevent a development like the Ukraine crisis in the future, Russia and the West should fundamentally rethink the existing Euro-Atlantic security architecture. At its core, NATO is a collective defense organization that was established to prevent attacks from outside NATO territory. Russia’s behavior in Ukraine was therefore a gift to NATO because it could be cited as a justification for NATO’s existence. Similar mechanisms are at play in Russia. Putin exploited NATO expansion for domestic political purposes. 

The Kremlin and NATO, along with their respective militaries and defense industries, need this kind of tension and antagonism toward each other. As long as that is the case, conflicts between Russia and the West, such as the one in Ukraine, may occur again. The only way to halt the negative spiral is to include Russia in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture in a way that is acceptable to all actors involved. Russia and the West have missed that opportunity in the past. 

ENDNOTES

1.   See Jacek Durkalec, “NATO Must Adapt to Address Russia’s Nuclear Brinkmanship,” European Leadership Network, October 30, 2015, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/nato-must-adapt-to-address-russias-nuclear-brinkmanship_3263.html; Jeffrey Rathke and Simond de Galbert, “NATO’s Nuclear Policy as Part of a Revitalized Deterrence Strategy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 27, 2016, http://csis.org/publication/natos-nuclear-policy-part-revitalized-deterrence-strategy; Matthew Kroenig, “The Renewed Russian Nuclear Threat and NATO Nuclear Deterrence Posture,” Atlantic Council Issue Brief, February 2016, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/images/publications/Russian_Nuclear_Threat_0203_web.pdf.

2.   Hans Kristensen, “Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons,” Federation of American Scientists, May 2012, pp. 12, 14, https://fas.org/_docs/Non_Strategic_Nuclear_Weapons.pdf

3.   NATO, “The Alliance’s Strategic Concept,” April 24, 1999, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_27433.htm; NATO, “Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” n.d., http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20120214_strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf (adopted November 19, 2010) (hereafter 2010 Strategic Concept). 

4.   2010 Strategic Concept, p. 14.

5.   Ibid., p. 16.

6.   NATO, “NATO’s Nuclear Forces in the New Security Environment,” NATO Issues, June 3, 2004, p. 5. 

7.   Kingston Reif, “NATO Weighs Nuclear Exercises,” Arms Control Today, November 2015.

8.   “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russian Federation,” May 27, 1997, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_25468.htm

9.   Hans Kristensen, “Adjusting NATO’s Nuclear Posture,” Federation of American Scientists, December 7, 2015, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2015/12/poland/

10.   Durkalec, “NATO Must Adapt to Address Russia’s Nuclear Brinkmanship.”

11.   Ibid.

12.   Ibid.

13.   Henry A. Kissinger, “To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End,” The Washington Post, March 5, 2014; John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (September/October 2014); Stephen Walt, “Why Arming Kiev Is a Really, Really Bad Idea,” Foreign Policy, February 9, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/09/how-not-to-save-ukraine-arming-kiev-is-a-bad-idea/

14.   The Obama administration has requested $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative for fiscal year 2017, more than four times the amount requested for the current fiscal year, to increase the amount of war-fighting equipment and the number of U.S. forces rotating through Europe. U.S. Department of Defense, “Secretary of Defense Speech: Remarks at EUCOM Change of Command,” May 3, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/750946/remarks-at-eucom-change-of-command

15.   Patrick M. Morgan, Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1977), p. 93.

16.   David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Balkans,” RAND Corp., 2016, p. 7, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1200/RR1253/RAND_RR1253.pdf. 

17.   John Borrie, “Humanitarian Reframing of Nuclear Weapons and the Logic of a Ban,” International Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 3 (May 2014): 625-646.

18.   Tom Sauer, “It’s Time to Outlaw Nuclear Weapons,” The National Interest, April 18, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/its-time-outlaw-nuclear-weapons-15814


Tom Sauer is an associate professor of international politics at the Universiteit Antwerpen in Belgium. He is a former fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He co-edited Nuclear Terrorism: Countering the Threat (2016) and is the author of Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: The Role of Missile Defense (2011).

More and more voices are calling for a review of NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy that would strengthen the role of nuclear weapons within the alliance. That would be a dramatic and ill-advised change.

Conventional Arms Control in Europe: Decline, Disarray, and the Need for Reinvention

June 2016

By Lucien Kleinjan

For some years now, conventional arms control in Europe has found itself under pressure. The edifice of conventional arms control instruments in Europe consists of three main pillars: the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures, most recently updated in 2011; the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which entered into force in 1992; and the Open Skies Treaty, which entered into force in 2002.

Some might contend that, at this juncture in history, all of these instruments have lost their military relevance to a large extent, although these perceptions might vary according to one’s birthplace. This article will argue that, from a political point of view, the instruments still have a pivotal role to play.

On the one hand, their demise would be an obvious symbol of withered trust and confidence. On the other hand, the continued malfunctioning of these instruments contributes to the further erosion of that trust and confidence. 

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders has said on several occasions that the main issue is one of trust and confidence. The countries involved need to have the trust and confidence to cooperate with one another. At the same time, such cooperation creates trust and confidence. Yet, it is not a chicken-and-egg situation. One can start at either end; the main requirement is the political will to break the current negative cycle.

Traditionally, the Netherlands has put considerable emphasis on and effort into the maintenance of conventional arms control, just as it does for nuclear disarmament. This vision flows from a deep-rooted tradition that emphasizes the normative power of international law. For a country of relatively small size and international weight, much is to be gained from a multilateral system whose members strictly adhere to its rules. Arms control forms part and parcel of such a system.

There is a direct link between the conventional and the nuclear fields. NATO allies perceive nuclear arms to be weapons of deterrence. All the allies hope they never have to resort to the use of such weapons. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept explicitly states this in Article 17: “The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.”1

Russian doctrine does not make that distinction as clearly. In the Russian perception, the use of nonstrategic nuclear arms—those that could be used on the battlefield instead of against strategic assets in the homeland of the opponent—would be dependent on the needs of a given conflict situation. Thus, there is a relationship between conventional and nonconventional arms in their potential use and the way one approaches arms control.

A Topical and Urgent Issue

As discussed above, conventional arms control is politically and militarily relevant. The recent events at the edges of Europe have demonstrated once again the continued or renewed relevance of conventional arms control. Notwithstanding the emergence of all kinds of military innovations, including warfare in the cyber domain, the use of drones, and the use of soldiers posing as local insurgents, it is clear from recent subregional conflicts that such conflicts are fought to a large extent with conventional equipment. These battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, aircraft, and attack helicopters are arms to seize and hold ground, as the military would put it.

It is exactly these categories of equip-ment on which the CFE Treaty and the Vienna Document focus. There is an obvious and urgent need to keep these documents alive and update them where necessary. 

Such endeavors call not only for knowledge and concentrated effort, but also a certain amount of political courage. Given the current circumstances, with a re-emergence of the perception of a military threat from Russia, many politicians in Europe and the United States have an understandable inclination to postulate that these are not times for arms control. They would rather consider modernization and enhancement of military capacities in view of the volatile behavior of the one state that treads on long-standing agreements and principles.

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, conventional arms control now is as important as ever. As Koenders tends to put it, arms control is not a fair-weather instrument. It is in dire times that the need for it is greatest.

Between countries that do not perceive each other as a threat in any way, arms control instruments are not warranted. The Netherlands does not have such instruments with Denmark. The need for arrangements to enhance transparency and thus stability and security arises in the cases of countries with which good relations come less naturally. 

The Vienna Document

The current year offers several oppor-tunities to engage in a dialogue to reinvigorate conventional arms control in Europe. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) happens to have started the exercise to update and modernize the Vienna Document this year. Some states, however, do not have the political will to engage in discussions on updates, let alone modernizations. They cite the current mistrust as the reason for their reluctance.

They are wrong. The crisis over Ukraine is a case in point. It demonstrated the need for substantial improvements in the Vienna Document, which would benefit all parties. Among other things, the crisis made clear that the Vienna Document had never foreseen the use of foreign troops posing as local insurgents, making use of heavy armor and weapons.

The crisis demonstrated the inadequacy of the verification methods in the document, shown, for example, in current restrictions on inspections and in insufficiently rigorous requirements for no-notice, or snap, exercises, in which participating troops are not forewarned and for which prior notification to the other signatories of the Vienna Document is not required.

Having held the presidency of the OSCE’s Forum for Security Co-operation during the first four months of this year, the Netherlands feels additionally motivated to propel the dialogue on these questions. It wants to do its utmost to arrive at a substantially improved Vienna Document that responds to the requirements of comprehensive security and the citizens of all participating OSCE states.

Modernization of the Vienna Document is vital. The loopholes that allow for circumvention of the letter and the spirit of the document should be closed. The times demand structural improvement of this pillar—for example, a document that allows more-intrusive inspections to enhance the verification regime, requires the parties to keep one another abreast of more exercises than under the current version of the document, and obliges countries to allow snap inspections and observations when holding snap exercises.

All this is not a goal in itself. It will make for more transparency and thus fewer surprises, fewer chances of misunderstandings, and fewer possible ensuing dangerous reactions. It is an investment in predictability, stability, and security.

It will not make for an ideal world. No Vienna Document could counterbalance a lack of trust and confidence. At the same time, the commitment to more-intrusive measures would be a first demonstration of the political will to arrive at greater transparency. That itself would be a confidence-building measure.

The Foundations of Conventional Arms Control in Europe

There are three main instruments on conventional arms control in Europe. Their scope and adhering members vary, mostly for historical and political reasons. The three agreements are described below.

The Vienna Document is a politically binding agreement among the participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It is intended to implement confidence- and security-building measures, such as exchanges of military information, prior notification of certain military exercises, and observation of certain military exercises. The crisis in and around Ukraine has highlighted loopholes in the agreement, as well as the need to enhance certain provisions. Because of the current political situation, Russia has shown a reluctance to enter into negotiations on the modernization of the Vienna Document.

The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty has its roots in the Cold War. It established limits on five categories of conventional military equipment in Europe and oversaw the destruction of excess weaponry by NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. There are 30 states-parties today. Russia is one of them, but it “suspended” its active participation in the treaty in 2007, expressing dissatisfaction with several of its elements, such as the continuation of the bloc-based approach.

The Open Skies Treaty allows for aerial surveillance flights over the territories of its 34 states-parties to enhance mutual understanding and confidence through the possibility of gathering information on military forces and activities. Due to a restrictive interpretation by Russia, the treaty risks losing some of its intrusiveness and thus effectiveness.

    The CFE Treaty

    Another opportunity presents itself this year to give a much needed boost to conventional arms control in Europe. In September, there will be a conference to review the functioning of the CFE Treaty, as there is every five years. 

    For years, the CFE Treaty rightly was considered the success story of conventional arms control, not just in Europe but worldwide. It was the benchmark, the cornerstone, of European arms control and thus European security.

    The treaty was a product of Cold War discord and was negotiated at the height of the Cold War. One result of the treaty was the observed destruction of 72,000 pieces of heavy military equipment by the countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The accompanying regime of mutual inspections provided a guarantee that the two opposing blocs were abiding by the agreed requirements for reductions and subsequently lower levels of armaments. The treaty thus created a framework for mutual trust, confidence, and transparency through its elaborate and intrusive system of continuous inspections.

    This system turned out to be mutually beneficial at a time when the blocs still felt secure at the lower levels of armaments. The parties were able to spend less on their militaries and more on civilian needs. The system thus provided economic gain without altering the strategic balance. The happy ending of the Cold War provided a good occasion to give the treaty a new footing, doing away with the blocs while preserving transparency.

    The adaptation of the treaty to that end never entered into force, as the precondition to which all the states-parties, including Russia, agreed—that 

    Russia would pull back its troops and materiel from Georgia and Moldova—was never met. Quite the contrary, one might say after the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia. Moreover, in 2007, Russia unilaterally “suspended” implementation of its obligations under the treaty. Transparency, cooperation, predictability, and stability were heavily affected, and several efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution to the impasse failed.

    Under these circumstances, this year’s review conference is likely to conclude that the CFE Treaty continues to suffer from the failure of one state-party to implement its obligations. Although 29 of the 30 states-parties continue to implement the treaty among themselves, the relevance of the pact is heavily affected because of Russian behavior. As noted earlier, the treaty’s value does not lie in mutual inspections between Denmark and the Netherlands.

    In the light of the foregoing, the Netherlands wants to appeal to all states-parties and to Russia in particular to return to the negotiating table. As with the Vienna Document, this is not a plea for just Dutch interests, but one that serves a common goal: stability and security for Europe. That goal transcends the undeniable differences among the countries of the continent. 

    The Open Skies Treaty 

    The Open Skies Treaty, the third pillar of European conventional arms control, still can be called quite successful. It offers its states-parties an unprecedented level of transparency, including the right to take photographs of military installations. 

    Unfortunately, the political upheaval in Europe has not left this treaty untouched. Russia’s restrictive interpretation of certain provisions and unilateral limitation of observation flights over its territory have affected the treaty’s effectiveness. For example, some areas have been declared off-limits for observation flights, and the accessibility of others has been hampered by restrictions on the altitude of overflights. 

    As always, states-parties are supposed to adhere faithfully to the letter and spirit of the treaty. Once again, the goal is simple and, one would hope, shared by all: promotion of transparency and predictability and thus of stability and security on the European continent.

    Conclusion

    Today, the citizens of Europe live in circumstances that they had hoped they had left behind. Dividing lines and mistrust have again emerged in Europe. Yet, the instruments in place should at least contribute to predictability and thus stability and security on the continent. 

    They are the three instruments of arms control that have served Europe and the rest of the world so well in the past, including times when tension presumably ran even higher than today. Arms control instruments in themselves are not designed to prevent or stop crises, but they can lead to a restoration of trust and confidence by offering mutual transparency about capabilities and the intentions of their signatories. This is not something that countries can afford to throw away or to slowly let wither. They should act this year to restart the cycle that would lead to a more stable and secure continent. 

    ENDNOTE

    1.   “Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” n.d., http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20120214_strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf (adopted at the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010).


    Lucien Kleinjan is the Netherlands’ special envoy for conventional arms control.

    Although it might seem counterintuitive, the instruments of conventional arms control in Europe still have a pivotal role to play.

    U.S. Missile Defenses in Europe: Move the Ball, Not the Goal Posts

    Within the last decade, the United States has made several important adjustments to its plans for deploying missile defenses in Europe. In light of the ongoing implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and an objective assessment of Iran’s missile program, it is high time to make another one—suspending the deployment of more advanced Aegis missile defense interceptors to Poland. Defending Europe Against Iran In September 2009, President Barack Obama announced a four-part “European Phased Adaptive Approach” (EPAA) to deploying U.S. missile defenses in Europe against the emerging ballistic...

    Avoiding War in Europe: The Risks From NATO-Russian Close Military Encounters

    November 2015

    By Ian Kearns

    A Russian warship moves through the waters near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol on March 7, 2014, as part of a blockade of Ukrainian ships. [Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]On March 3, 2014, a Russian warplane with its transponders switched off came within seconds of colliding with a Danish civilian airliner carrying 132 passengers from Copenhagen to Rome. SAS flight 737 averted a collision that day only because of evasive action taken by its pilot.1

    An almost identical incident occurred nine months later, on December 12, again involving a Russian warplane and a civilian airliner that had just left Copenhagen.

    Barely a year after the first incident, in March of this year, Russian Su-30 multirole fighter jets used two NATO warships in the Black Sea as targets in high-intensity training exercises.2 The purpose of the exercise appears to have been to provoke the NATO ships into taking defensive action so that the pilots of the Russian aircraft could observe that action and practice countermaneuvers.

    Over the last 18 months, the European Leadership Network has logged more than 60 such dangerous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area.3 The wider catalogue of events includes mock Russian cruise missile attack runs on targets in North America and Denmark, instances of Russian and Western fighter aircraft coming within meters of each other while on maneuvers, a series of submarine hunts off the coasts of Scotland and Sweden, and the abduction by Russian agents in September 2014 of an Estonian security service operative on Estonian, and therefore NATO, territory. In recent weeks, as Russian air operations have commenced in Syria and instances of Russian violations of Turkish airspace have come to light, the theater of these close and dangerous military encounters and incidents appears to have broadened from the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East.

    There is a wider military and political context to these events that makes them all the more worrying. In addition to the close NATO-Russian military encounters now occurring, a general deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the West has become visible in an action-reaction cycle of military exercises being conducted in Europe. Russia is conducting more exercises than NATO, and the two sets of exercises are dissimilar in scale. A Russian “snap” exercise conducted in March, for example, brought together 80,000 military personnel in operations focused on the Arctic and the Baltic Sea regions whereas NATO’s largest exercise in many years, Trident Juncture, which started last month, drew about 36,000 military personnel. Moreover, while NATO exercises are aimed at reassuring allies in the eastern part of the alliance in the context of Russian support for separatists in Ukraine, Russia is using its exercises at least partly to intimidate and unsettle its neighbors.

    Despite these important differences, however, there are similarities in the exercises of the two sides. These similarities say something important about what is occurring.

    Both sides are using their exercises to practice a rapid mobilization and redeployment of forces over long distances to strengthen what they perceive to be their most strategically exposed areas. NATO is conducting exercises with a view to being able to protect the Baltic states and Poland. Russia is focusing on its border areas with Latvia and Estonia; Kaliningrad, the Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland; the Arctic; and occupied Crimea. The exercises of both involve ground, air, and naval forces in joint operations and include high-intensity combined arms training, the conducting and repelling of amphibious assaults, and engagements with low-level irregular forces.

    Most importantly, despite protestations by both sides that the exercises are aimed at no particular adversary, it is clear that each side is exercising with the most likely war plans of the other in mind. The Russian military is preparing for a confrontation with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a confrontation with Russia. This does not mean either side has the political intent to start a war, but it does mean that both believe a war is no longer unthinkable. Many in NATO believe that the demonstration of resolve that the NATO exercises and additional force deployments in eastern Europe represent is essential to deterring Russian aggression and therefore to keeping the peace in Europe. In NATO’s view, the exercises are not a problem, but a virtue. Whether this view is justified—given Russia’s recent behavior, it may well be—the total effect of the developments described here is to generate a growing sense of insecurity on both sides. Russian exercises are seen as a provocation and a threat in the West, and NATO exercises and new deployments are seen as threatening in Moscow.

    The developing situation also has a nuclear dimension. In a documentary made for a domestic Russian audience in March 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he had considered putting Russian nuclear forces on alert during the operation to annex Crimea. Just a few weeks later, the Russian ambassador to Denmark appeared to tell that country that if it took part in NATO’s emerging missile defense shield, it could expect to go on the target list for Russian nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. These instances of what are seen as nuclear intimidation and nuclear saber rattling are creating pressure for a NATO response.

    Last month, in response to Russia’s recent behavior, Adam Thomson, the UK ambassador to NATO, said that since the end of the Cold War, NATO has conducted exercises with conventional weapons and nuclear weapons but not “the transition from one to the other.” Now, however, “[t]hat is a recommendation that is being looked at. It is safe to say the UK does see merit in making sure we know how, as an Alliance, to transition up the escalatory ladder in order to strengthen our deterrence.”4

    Meanwhile, Crimea and Ukraine have become flash points of a much more fundamental political disagreement. Not only are there significant policy differences between Russia and the West, but on the Russian side, a growing number of military and national security officials appear to believe Western policy is aimed at overthrowing Putin and weakening the Russian state to the point where it can be effectively destroyed and dismembered. Claims that the removal of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine was a Western-backed unconstitutional coup and a trial run for a “color revolution” in Russia itself are dismissed as rhetoric in the West, but are more deep-rooted in Moscow than some Western policymakers appear willing to acknowledge.5 It therefore seems safe to assume that current Russian behavior is driven as much by a concern for regime survival as it is by a concern for geopolitical advantage or by disagreement with specific policies of the West.

    Many in the West at the same time believe that Russia is seeking to change the post-Cold War settlement, or perhaps even the post-World War II settlement, in Europe in a number of ways, including by use of force if necessary. The charge sheet here concerns changes to the borders of the Georgian state since 2008 and events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine over the past two years. It also includes the provision of funding and support to nationalist political parties hostile to the European integration project in central and western Europe and the use of energy as an instrument to influence the domestic and foreign policy choices of a number of states in NATO and the European Union. For many, it is becoming apparent that Russia is a revisionist power in western as well as eastern Europe.

    Whether or not the current situation amounts to a new Cold War, the upshot is a confrontation in which both sides now perceive their fundamental interests to be at stake.

    At the Mercy of Events

    Too few appear to recognize that the current cocktail of incidents, mistrust, changed military posture, and nuclear signaling is creating the conditions in which a single event or combination of events could result in a NATO-Russian war, even if neither side intends it. To understand why this is not an exaggerated concern, one might consider the sequence of events that easily could have transpired if the aforementioned SAS civilian airliner en route from Copenhagen to Rome had collided with the Russian warplane.

    The outrage and uproar in Western capitals at what would certainly have been a very serious loss of life would have been understandably huge. Media and public pressure to act quickly against Russia would have been irresistible. A demand for an immediate cessation of Russian military flights with transponders switched off, especially in civilian air corridors, would have been issued. If that demand did not elicit an immediate positive response from Moscow, a move that might imply acceptance of guilt, previously routine civil aviation flights in European airspace would have been declared at risk. In that situation, those flights would have to have been suspended, which would have been politically unacceptable and economically very damaging, or NATO would have needed to begin military interdiction of Russian aircraft. Any European government not willing to support such interdiction would have been taking its future in its hands, exposing itself to claims that it was weak in the face of unacceptable Russian behavior or risking a further incident while doing little or nothing to prevent it.

    Amid this kind of uproar in the West, Putin would be highly likely to exhibit sadness at the loss of life and to offer full Russian assistance in any inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened. At the same time, he almost certainly would point out that Western military aircraft themselves fly with transponders switched off and that the Russian military aircraft involved in this particular incident was operating in full compliance with international law and was in international airspace. Although not ruling out talks to manage the situation, his domestic political persona would constrain his options. He has invested a lot of time and effort in portraying himself to his own people as a strong leader, capable of standing up to the West while making Russia respected again on the international stage. Capitulating to Western pressure outright would be politically damaging.

    Diplomacy might save the day, but that could not be assumed. The scene would be set for the planes, naval vessels, and land forces of a nuclear-armed state and a nuclear-armed alliance to continue coming up against each other. This time, however, the close encounters would not be part of planned exercises or a game of brinkmanship, which is dangerous enough, but would come amid a real standoff over who had the right to fly where and under what circumstances, with everyone’s fundamental interests and full political prestige at stake.

    Little or nothing is being done to avert this kind of crisis, which could be triggered by any one of the other dangerous incidents and encounters that have taken place over the last 18 months. This absence of action is shocking. If such a crisis resulted in military hostilities, there would be no telling where those hostilities might lead and, given the nuclear arsenals on both sides, what the end result could be.

    Agreements on Avoiding Incidents

    The Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, was signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at their summit in Moscow in May 1972. It is a technical military-to-military agreement rather than a statement of political principle. It requires each side to avoid dangerous maneuvers, refrain from mock attacks that might simulate weapons use against aircraft or ships, and avoid dropping objects close to ships to hinder their navigation. It also requires the surveillance ships and aircraft of one side to communicate with the other.

    The agreement was a response to a dangerous pattern of military activities, including instances of each side’s warships maneuvering very close to those of the other, and a pattern of dangerous maritime air surveillance involving close overflights of warships. The latter was often perceived as harassment by the ships’ commanders. The agreement proved its worth when, during the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, it helped ensure there were no serious incidents while 150 U.S. and Soviet warships shared the crowded waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

    The Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities was signed on June 12, 1989, and entered into force on January 1, 1990. Like the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it governs the activities and personnel of each side when operating in close proximity to the other in peacetime. It focuses on four categories of military activity: military operations by one side near the territory of the other; the use of lasers, particularly those directed at aircraft cockpits, which could be harmful to personnel; operations in areas of high tension, which either party could designate as a “special caution area”; and interference with command-and-control networks. In each of these areas, the agreement requires caution, communication to avoid dangerous incidents and misunderstandings, and action to terminate injurious activity if a problem is identified by the other side. Unlike the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it incorporates certain operations on land as well as those at sea and in the air. It also sets out agreed communications signals and frequencies to be used by the aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles of each side. A joint military commission was set up to issue an annual assessment of compliance and consider how the agreement could be enhanced.—IAN KEARNs

      Negotiating a New Instrument

      The risk of a serious crisis and the absence of action to prevent one led to a recent paper from the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, made up of senior figures from Russia and the rest of Europe. This group called for the NATO-Russia Council to be convened urgently to discuss a possible new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NATO and Russia on rules of behavior in air and maritime encounters between the two sides. This proposal has been signed or endorsed by a total of 78 senior military, political, and diplomatic leaders drawn from across the European continent.

      The task force proposal draws explicitly on an agreement signed by China and the United States in late 2014. This U.S.-Chinese MOU sets out the principles and procedures for communication during encounters between military vessels and aircraft and requires each side to give timely hazard warnings if military exercises and live weapons firing are to take place in an area where the military vessels and aircraft of the other may be operational.6 It also sets out a series of rules for establishing mutual trust. These include a commitment, when conducting operations, to communicate in a timely fashion about the planned maneuvers of military vessels and military aircraft. They also include a list of actions that should be avoided, such as simulation of attacks by aiming guns, missiles, fire control radar, torpedo tubes, or other weapons in the direction of military vessels and military aircraft encountered.

      The agreement specifies the radio frequencies to be used for communication and the signals vocabulary to be used if pilots, commanding officers, or masters of vessels experience language difficulties as they communicate with one another. It also contains a provision for each party to conduct an annual meeting, led by senior military officers, to assess application of the agreement in the previous year and to deal with any problems or issues that have arisen during that time.

      With regard to the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, the 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, and the 1989 Agreement on Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (see box) operate in a similar way. These two agreements could serve as the basis for a more multilateralized arrangement involving all NATO members and Russia and even NATO partners such as Sweden and Finland. Russian and NATO officials should pursue this objective with urgency.

      Some apparently still think such a deal is not necessary. In off-the-record conversations, some military commanders stress that close military encounters of the kind now under way in Europe were a fact of life during the Cold War and that well-trained, professional military personnel are more than up to the task of handling them without incident.7

      Furthermore, some diplomats and politicians, particularly in eastern Europe, see the proposal as dangerously corrosive to Western unity with regard to Russia. This latter group sees any attempt to negotiate a mechanism for reducing the risks of close military encounters with Russia as a reward for aggressive Russian behavior and as an unwelcome opportunity for some Western countries, suspected of wishing to return their relations with Russia to “business as usual,” to advance their case. According to this view, a move to negotiate a new instrument would encourage further aggressive Russian behavior and dissipate the message of resolve, deterrence, and a commitment to collective defense that NATO has been trying to construct and maintain since the annexation of Crimea.8

      On the Russian side, there also are some voices arguing against this proposal, seeing in it a Western tactic aimed at distracting attention from matters of greater significance, such as the eastward enlargement of NATO, the failure of the West to engage in dialogue on future arrangements for European security as a whole, and a lack of willingness to address wider Russian security concerns from missile defense to developments in conventional prompt global-strike systems.

      The arguments on all sides are understandable in the context of what is now a total breakdown of trust between NATO and Russia and a lack of confidence among some allies within NATO. Ultimately, however, they are not persuasive.

      The very existence of the recent U.S.-Chinese MOU validates a concern over the risks that are run when the military forces of states that are not allies come into close proximity with one another. That agreement makes clear the importance of having protocols and military procedures in place to manage events in real time rather than relying on agreements to refrain from certain kinds of activity in the first place. Although some military commanders seem less worried about such incidents, many more believe leaving the outcome of close military encounters to chance or the split-second decisions of individual pilots and other military personnel is unnecessarily dangerous.

      The more recent dialogue between Russia and the United States on the subject of “deconflicting” the roles of the U.S.-led coalition and Russian military forces deployed in and around Syria is another timely recognition of the need for and logic of a new multilateral instrument to manage the risks.

      Although there has been some concern about the ultimate diplomatic consequence of negotiating such an instrument in Europe, the necessity of having the conversation with regard to Syria was realized almost immediately once it became clear that the Russian military presence in Syria was being increased and was changing in character and capability. To put it bluntly, it became evident to everyone that U.S. warplanes operating over Syria could be accidentally shot down by Russian air defense systems being deployed there, embedded U.S. special forces on the ground could be the victim of Russian air attacks, and Russian and U.S. military aircraft could be operating in an uncoordinated way in the same airspace. This overall situation and several instances of Russian warplanes entering Turkish airspace from Syria prompted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to tell a press conference on October 6 that “Russia must deconflict its military activities in Syria” and that “it’s unacceptable to violate the airspace of another country, and this is exactly what we were afraid of, that incidents, accidents may create dangerous situations.”9

      It is difficult to see why dialogue and the negotiation of more-formal arrangements makes strategic sense between China and the United States in the East and South China seas and why deconflicting makes sense in Syria, but neither apparently makes sense between NATO and Russia in Europe.

      Deterrence Is Not Enough

      NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 6.  [Photo credit: Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images]The argument that an attempt to negotiate a new instrument between NATO and Russia in Europe could weaken deterrence also is not persuasive. It is a reasonable concern, echoing debates on whether to engage in détente and associated steps toward superpower conflict prevention and crisis management during the Cold War. Yet, it is important to recall that the underlying rationale of détente was a lowering of tension with the Soviet Union to avoid the possibility of an accidental conflict and the potential for catastrophic nuclear war. Détente emphatically was not nor was it intended to be the end of superpower competition or of differences between the Soviet Union and the United States.

      The impetus for dialogue in that period, as manifested in the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, to cite two examples, was an acceptance of the need for mutual restraint and the adoption of measures to avoid accidental war. This approach was seen as the only basis for mutual survival. The nuclear shadow was ever present, and the fear of nuclear war was the driving force. In essence, what followed the near catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was a developing belief that the task of avoiding war between nuclear-armed states could not be left to deterrence alone. Other mechanisms were needed to keep the peace and, no matter what disagreements and confrontations existed, these mechanisms needed to be negotiated and implemented.                 

      Looking at the current absence of dialogue between NATO and Russia and at arguments against negotiating a new instrument to manage close military encounters, one is struck by what appears to be nuclear amnesia, nuclear complacency, or both. If a military confrontation between Russia and NATO were to develop today, for whatever reason, the risks and the potential consequences would be the same as they were during the Cold War.

      For these reasons, the case for a new instrument to help manage the risks in the Euro-Atlantic area, and in particular to manage the risks between NATO members and Russia, is strong. The call for negotiation of such an instrument chimes with the times and with approaches being used in other theaters. Above all, it reflects the lessons of history. To pretend the status quo is safe or acceptable is to abdicate the responsibility of leadership and to leave the security of Europe and potentially of the world at the mercy of events.


      Ian Kearns is co-founder and director of the European Leadership Network. He previously was acting director and deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom and deputy chair of the institute’s independent All-Party Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.


      ENDNOTES

      1.  “SAS Flight in Russian Spy Plane Near Miss,” The Local, May 8, 2014, http://www.thelocal.se/20140508/sas-plane-in-russian-spy-plane-near-miss.

      2.  Government-owned Russian media even bragged about this incident. See Sputnik International, “Russian Jets Penetrate NATO Ships’ Air Defenses in Black Sea,” March 19, 2015, http://sputniknews.com/russia/20150304/1019036875.html.

      3.  Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa, and Ian Kearns, “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014,” European Leadership Network (ELN), November 2014, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2014/11/09/6375e3da/Dangerous%20Brinkmanship.pdf. For a further update on incidents, see Ian Kearns, Łukasz Kulesa, and Thomas Frear, “Russia-West Dangerous Brinkmanship Continues,” ELN, March 12, 2015, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/russia--west-dangerous-brinkmanship-continues-_2529.html.

      4.  “Britain Backs Return of Cold War Nuclear Drills as NATO Hardens Against Russia,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2015.

      5.  The term “color revolution” is a reference to labels used by the world’s media to describe previous waves of revolutionary change in a number of countries. Examples include the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

      6.  “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters,” November 9, 2014, sec. 1, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/141112_MemorandumOfUnderstandingRegarding
      Rules.pdf.

      7.  Between March 2014 and October 2015, the author conducted face-to-face, telephone, and e-mail interviews on background with a number of senior military figures from NATO countries and Russia. The statement made in this paragraph reflects the view of a minority of those interviewed.

      8.  Since the publication of the position paper by the Task Force on Greater Europe calling for a new memorandum of understanding, this view has been expressed in August 2015 to the author directly by a former Baltic state defense minister and by several ambassador-level diplomats from the same region.

      9.  “Pre-Ministerial Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,” NATO, October 6, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_123471.htm. NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on October 8.

      With NATO-Russian relations in their current state, a single event or combination of events could result in a war, even if neither side intends it...

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