Conventional Arms Control After Ukraine

This is the fifth in a series of posts from members of the Defence Studies Department’s Regional Security Research Centre, focusing on Russia and the implications of its increasingly assertive posture on the international stage. This post builds on a previous post to examine the prospects for conventional arms control in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The final post in our series next Monday will explore implications for British defence policy.


As part of the Defence-in-Depth’s recent series on Russia, Heather Williams wrote about the prospects for nuclear arms control and non-proliferation policies in the light of the war in Ukraine. Discussing initiatives such as the New START Treaty, the INF Treaty, the Nunn-Lugar Programme, and tactical nuclear weapons, Dr Williams paints a comprehensive picture of the future for these nuclear issues. But what about prospects for arms control of non-CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) weapons? In the short term, the likelihood of progress on so-called conventional arms control is low, as cooperation between Russia and the West shows little promise under Putin’s regime. But in the long term, conventional arms control may form the basis of a more lasting peace in Europe based on increased stabilisation and decreased anxiety.

Conventional arms control is often overlooked in favour of its more glamorous CBRN cousin. In Europe, it traditionally has been based on three agreements: the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the Vienna Document, and the Open Skies Treaty. The Vienna Document 2011 is a Confidence and Security Building Measure (CSBM) that allows for inspections and data exchanges, and the Open Skies Treaty allows for territorial overflights for similar purposes. The CFE Treaty is by far the most substantive regime in terms of arms limitation and robust inspections. But given recent setbacks with the CFE Treaty, it is easy to see why conventional arms control in Europe is a largely forgotten topic.

The CFE Treaty, which was signed in 1990 and entered into force in 1992, is certainly seen by many as defunct since Russia’s ‘suspension’ of portions of the treaty in 2007. In fact, when typing ‘CFE Treaty’ into the Google search engine, one of the suggested ‘related searches’ reads: ‘CFE treaty a cold war anachronism’. At first glance, this seems an apt description.

The CFE Treaty was certainly a product of the Cold War. In the 1970s and 80s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact engaged in a series of negotiations relating to Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR), which culminated in the negotiations of the CFE Treaty. The aim was to eliminate ‘the capability for launching surprise attack and for initiating large-scale offensive action in Europe’ through a reduction of conventional armaments (battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters), in addition to data exchanges and inspections.

In its mission to reduce armaments in Europe, the CFE Treaty was incredibly successful: CFE States Parties removed over 52,000 pieces of conventional armaments from the treaty’s area of application from 1992 to 2008. But having accomplished this task, it has failed to endure as a lasting security institution.

This was largely because the CFE Treaty was designed to function in two blocs, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But the latter institution dissolved before the treaty went into effect, and NATO enlargements in 1999 and 2004 included many of these former Warsaw Pact countries. This flaw was recognized early on by both sides, and by 1999 they signed a new Adapted CFE Treaty (A/CFE) that would replace bloc limitations with individual national and territorial limitations.

However, the treaty limited equipment that Russia had kept in Moldova and Georgia as part of the ‘frozen conflicts’ in those countries became a bone of contention between Russia and the Western States Parties. The latter refused to ratify A/CFE, which led to Russia’s suspension of the treaty in 2007. A year later, Russia invaded Georgia; the CFE process has yet to be revived, despite the brief appointment of U.S. Ambassador Victoria Nuland as Special Envoy for Conventional Armed Forces in Europe from 2010 to 2011.

So if the CFE Treaty could not work during the relatively stable period of the early to mid-2000s, what are the prospects for conventional arms control in a continent now beset by war?

It seems that the West has a few options:

1. Keep the Status Quo

Despite the failure of the CFE Treaty, the other two pillars of conventional arms control are still functioning and are being employed in the current crisis. According to the Brookings Institution, both the Vienna Document 2011 and the Open Skies Treaty are being used in a limited capacity to conduct inspections and overflights of relevant areas near the conflict zone. Furthermore, Russia shows no sign of leaving these agreements at the moment, and it remains a rare vehicle of cooperation.

2. Status Quo (Plus)

The West can use the Vienna Document 2011 and the Open Skies Treaty as stepping stones for deeper cooperation with Russia. This would require a long-term vision, looking beyond current conflicts and possibly Putin’s regime. Its goals would not be ambitious: most likely it would seek to rebuild trust via non-intrusive CSBMs, including further inspections, notifications, data exchanges, military-to-military contact, and other activities within existing frameworks such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or non-binding agreements. It would see any new legally-binding treaty as too ambitious for the current climate.

3. Walk Away

If sanctions and current levels of diplomatic isolation do not work to curb Russian behaviour, the West might be tempted to walk away from conventional arms control entirely. Even supporters of the Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty would admit that, although they are positive tools for cooperation, they are not integral to Western security. Dismantling these frameworks could further isolate the Russian regime. This option likely would be seen as a last resort for diplomats.

4. Resurrect CFE

This option would, like Option 2, seek to look beyond the current situation and try to rebuild Europe based on the principles of the CFE Treaty regime as the ultimate guarantor of security. This approach seems to have at least some support in the conventional arms control community.

5. Transcend CFE

It may well be that these treaties are Cold War anachronisms, designed for a bygone security environment. But this does not mean that Europe can live comfortably without a conventional arms control regime.

Transcending the regime in Europe would be very ambitious. It would require Western leaders to take back the diplomatic initiative from Russia, proposing their own solutions rather than simply battling Russian non-starters such as the deeply problematic ‘European Security Treaty’, proposed by Medvedev in 2009. It might require flexibility on certain issues, such as missile defence. But it would also require leaders to stay firm on certain key redlines: NATO’s existence and the right of states to choose their own security alliances. This likely could never be accepted in Putin’s Kremlin. But surely Western democracy will outlive him, and when the time comes for a successor, it would be good for any potential reformer to have a viable option of negotiation with the West.

Sadly, this option would mean recognising that the Ukranian problem could not be solved by such a security regime, at least in the short term. But if the West plays the long game, and plays it well, it may well avert future crises and provide a framework within which Ukraine might eventually heal.

Image: T-90 tanks take part in the Victory Parade in Moscow, 9 May 2012. Courtesy of Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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