Arms Control After Ukraine


Yesterday’s ceasefire in Ukraine can hardly be considered a Valentine. Tensions remain high between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, and past attempts at compromise failed or proved to be short-lived. A recent Washington Post op-ed by Anne Applebaum called on the international community to focus on a long-term strategy for dealing with Russia, rather than getting too distracted by short-term tactical questions. Russia is decidedly taking a long-view of its role not only in Europe but also in geopolitical balancing worldwide. A previous piece as part of this series by Tracy German highlighted Russia’s long-term attitudes and ambitions, which include an increased reliance on nuclear weapons to deter both nuclear and conventional threats.

Yet for the most part, events in Ukraine- to include Russian violation of Ukrainian borders and sovereignty, along with support for rebel forces- are likely to have minimal impact on nuclear non-proliferation and arms control policies. The same can be said for Russia’s ‘new’ military doctrine and nuclear posture. This is a case of correlation: changes in nuclear policy and non-proliferation are a reflection of the same shifts that led to events in Ukraine. The impact on nuclear policies, however, will be felt within NATO regarding the status of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Ultimately, the Ukraine crisis shed light on underlying tensions that have existed for years as a result of Russia’s evolving view of its role in the world, epitomized in the machismo of President Putin, to include its attitude towards nuclear weapons as a source of prestige.

Prospects for further arms control in the near future are unlikely, but this was the case before events unfolded in Ukraine. Following the 2010 New START Treaty, it became clear that Washington and Moscow had very different views as to what would be the next step in bilateral arms control. Russia insists the next agreement be multilateral and continues to express frustration with U.S. plans for missile defence in Europe and advanced conventional weapons; whereas the United States would want to see tactical nuclear weapons under discussion. Any informal agreements are unlikely as Russia will want a legally-binding mechanism for further reductions and unilateral reductions are unappetizing in the current Washington political climate.

A July 2014 report by the U.S. State Department concluded Russia was in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which committed both states to refrain from producing, possessing, or testing ground launched cruise missiles with a range of 500-5500km. The timing of the accusation suggested a link to events in Ukraine as the State Department report was released just weeks after the shoot-down of MH17. However, Russia may have been in violation of the treaty since as early as 2008 and in January 2014 the United States informed its NATO allies of missile testing that violated the INF Treaty. While Ukraine provided the opportunity for highlighting these incidents, they had been going on for years before Russian troops crossed the border.

In another blow to nuclear cooperation, in December 2014 Russia announced it would no longer accept U.S. assistance in securing its nuclear materials as part of a two-decade initiative, the Nunn-Lugar Programme. The timing of this announcement certainly can be seen as linked to souring relations over Ukraine, but for Russia the programme has been controversial since its 1992 inception. Accepting U.S. assistance, both financial and on-site inspectors, may have contributed to securing dangerous materials and weapons, but for many Russian hardliners this was a reminder of events in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War in the early 1990’s, an era of shame. The end of nuclear security cooperation was but one more example of an increasingly assertive Russia, not necessarily a result of events in Ukraine. For many Russians, the Cold War never ended.

On a more positive note, the United States and Russia continue to work together in other areas of arms control and non-proliferation. According to the U.S. State Department, as of the fourth year of New START’s implementation there have been over 8,000 data exchanges and eighteen inspections by each country. Other areas of cooperation include destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and ongoing negotiations with Iran as part of the P5+1 (along with China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) to roll-back the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Where events in Ukraine will truly have an impact on nuclear policies, however, is within NATO. In another piece as part of this series, Ellen Hallams noted that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have re-energised NATO but have not necessarily led to NATO solidarity. This is certainly true for NATO nuclear policy. U.S. tactical nuclear weapons remain in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) but NATO has consistently avoided difficult questions as to the status of these weapons. For eastern NATO states, particularly the Baltics, these weapons along with U.S. missile defence plans are a crucial part of the Alliance’s security guarantee and source of reassurance. For others, including many of the states hosting the weapons, they undermine global efforts at disarmament, among other concerns. Russian incursions into Ukraine may exacerbate these divisions within NATO and the status of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is increasingly unavoidable.

Arms control is certainly at a pause, but it is hardly dead. New START inspections continue, along with cooperation on other non-proliferation issues, such as Iran. Taking a long-term view, as Russia appears to be doing, arms control remains in Russia’s interest because it feeds into Putinist ideology. Russia’s nuclear weapons are a reminder of its superpower status and any negotiations that puts it at the table with the United States, along with any resulting agreement solidifying parity in the two countries’ arsenals, reaffirms this world vision about Russia’s place in the world. Eventually, Russia will return to the arms control fold, likely as New START’s expiration approaches and Russia faces the prospect of losing the prestige of arms control, insights into the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and faces the financial costs of sustaining a massive arsenal. In the long-term, the West should be ready for when this time comes and remember that pressure, along with concessions, will be necessary.

Image: US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Prague, 8 April 2010. Photo courtesy of Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

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