The crisis of the conventional arms control regime
Europe is witnessing the worst security crisis since the end of World War II. The conflict in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea demonstrated again that military conflict is still possible in Europe.
This is aggravated by a general increase in military activity, including the stationing of Russian and NATO forces along strategic borders, a rise in military exercises, as well as large-scale sea and air maneuvers. This has significantly heightened the risk of military accidents.
Against this backdrop, former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who chaired the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2016, launched an initiative to revive conventional arms control as “a tried and tested means of risk-reduction, transparency and confidence-building between Russia and the West.”
The current conventional arms control regime has been in crisis since 2007, when Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which was negotiated during the final years of the Cold War. It set equal limits on the amount of conventional weapons that NATO and the Warsaw Pact could deploy. An adapted version was signed in 1999, reflecting new realities and introducing national and territorial ceilings.
Russia’s unilateral suspension came after NATO states maintained that they would only ratify the Adapted CFE Treaty once Russia had completely withdrawn its forces from Georgia and Moldova (Istanbul Commitments). While Russia partially withdrew, the West insisted on full withdrawal. Linking the Istanbul Commitments with the coming into force of the Adapted CFE Treaty eventually led to deadlock.
Two other key documents of the conventional arms control regime are the Treaty on Open Skies, which permits unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the territory of the 34 State Parties, as well as the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs), which foresees information sharing, inspections and evaluations in the military realm. As Moscow is against increasing transparency in the current circumstances, it refuses to engage in negotiations on the Vienna Document’s modernization, thus worsening the crisis of the conventional arms control regime.
In order to reverse this crisis, Germany formed a group of likeminded states that supported the German initiative, yet without the participation of the United States and Russia.
The US contended that relaunching a dialogue on conventional arms control is imprudent at a time when fundamental principles are in question and existing agreements are being violated. The US suggested that a conversation on other security issues, such as transnational threats, be held first.
Russia, on the other hand, stipulated that conventional arms control should be discussed in connection with other strategic security concerns, such as military doctrines, military-to-military contacts or missile defense systems.
The German OSCE chairmanship was successful in balancing US and Russian interests, while taking into account the preference by the like-minded group to initiate a structured dialogue on conventional arms control.
As a result, the 57 participating OSCE states, including the US and Russia, adopted a consensus decision at the 2016 OSCE Ministerial Council, in which they commit to “exploring, inter alia, how the negative developments concerning the conventional arms control and CSBM architecture in Europe can be reversed.” This should happen within a structured dialogue on broader security challenges, such as those suggested by the US and Russia.
The momentum that has been created by the adoption of this decision should not be lost, especially given the uncertainty about the future of US-Russian relations. The ball is now in the court of the Austrian OSCE chairmanship to devise a dialogue format within the OSCE.
A version of this article appeared in print in February, 2017, with the headline “Relaunch”.
Stephanie Liechtenstein works as web editor-inchief for the “Security and Human Rights Monitor.” She held several positions at the OSCE in Vienna between 2003 and 2008.