Food for Thought: "A Call to Arms Control"

"The current situation is more dangerous than at any time since the end of the Cold War" writes Wolfang Ischinger in the December issue of our "Monthly Mind" column. "This is why there is great urgency to enhance transparency and reduce the risk of accidents and miscalculations."

Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and Senior Professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin (Photo: MSC/Kuhlmann).

"It would be wonderful if we had good relationships with Russia so that we don't have to go through all of the drama," then-candidate Donald J. Trump said in July. In principle, many Europeans would agree, albeit with key caveats. The most important one: A new joint US-Russian effort at détente, as desirable as it might be, must not come at the expense of NATO allies and other US partners in Europe, including Ukraine and Georgia.


But, of course, better relations are highly desirable. The conflicts in Ukraine and Syria will only be resolved if Washington and Moscow manage to see eye to eye to the minimum extent necessary. Thus, how to make progress on these conflicts will play a role on any future US-Russian agenda.


An additional item may not be as obvious, but should also have a prominent place on the agenda: conventional and nuclear arms control.


The Euro-Atlantic security architecture, its arms control components included, has been slowly unravelling. During the last few years, a situation of grave Euro-Atlantic tensions and massive mutual mistrust has developed. Risks of miscalculation and military accidents, and thus of escalation, have become unacceptably high. From the skies over Syria and North Eastern Europe to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Western and Russian ships and airplanes operate closely to each other, and there have already been a number of close calls. All it takes for a full-blown crisis to materialize is one wrong button pushed, one airplane shot down, with subsequent escalating rhetoric as well as poor or non-existing crisis communication and national security decision-making under enormous pressure. Such a crisis could even make the risk of escalation to the nuclear level – unthinkable, we used to believe – something to reckon with.


Moreover, in addition to these short-term military risks, important arms control agreements, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, may be coming apart. After the earlier US decision to abandon the ABM treaty, and with the continuing serious disagreements on missile defense, such trends are extremely worrisome.


The current situation is more dangerous than at any time since the end of the Cold War. This is why there is great urgency to enhance transparency and reduce the risk of accidents and miscalculations. That is what arms control is for. NATO members were right to stress, in the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit declaration, that "Allies are determined to preserve, strengthen, and modernise conventional arms control in Europe."


So what steps should be taken, considering the current climate?


First, irresponsible nuclear rhetoric needs to be stopped. Loose talk about deploying nukes is reckless, nothing else.


Second, communication channels. In addition to renewed political dialogue, it is essential for military-to-military contacts to resume on all levels. This should include exchanges on doctrine and strategy. The NATO-Russia Council, for example, has been reconvened, but could offer significant additional opportunities for deeper exchange which wait to be explored.


Third, immediate steps should be taken to prevent accidents and confrontations involving aircraft or naval vessels. As important work done by the Nuclear Threat Initiative shows, what would make sense is a requirement for all military aircraft to fly with transponders turned on as well as an agreement on distance limitation on U.S. and Russian aircraft and ships in international airspace and waters. Such steps could serve as useful confidence and security building measures in the current climate of mutual mistrust.


Fourth, there is an urgent need to strengthen and update existing multilateral agreements. In 2007, Russia suspended the implementation of the CFE treaty. More recently, questions have arisen regarding the effective application of the Open Skies Treaty and the Vienna Document – regimes that increase transparency about military capabilities and exercises conducted in the Euro-Atlantic space. The Russian government could, for example, set an example by committing to the resolution of compliance issues and engaging in the current modernization process of the Vienna Document, including on lowering the notification and observation thresholds for military exercises.


Fifth, we should relaunch a broader dialogue on ways to improve arms control, with the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a key forum. Such a dialogue might include discussions of regional ceilings, minimum distances, new weapons systems (drones, for example) and better verification. We need to make arms control fit for the future.


To promote such ideas, a group of like-minded countries from the Euro-Atlantic area, led by OSCE Chairman-in-Office Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has come together to initiate a structured dialogue on conventional arms control. Hopefully, others, including the United States, will join.


Critics or sceptics will find many reasons to disagree with an arms control initiative. Aren't there much more important priorities right now, they will ask. It would not lead to meaningful results in the current climate, they will argue, and Moscow could not be trusted to honor new agreements anyway as they are violating existing ones. It would wrongly reward bad Russian behavior with offers of renewed cooperation, they will say, and argue that the Russian government would just drag their feet while pretending to cooperate constructively for the sake of influencing Western public opinion.


These arguments are not all unreasonable, but they still miss the point. In the Cold War, would we have gotten anywhere on such a basis? Let us not forget that even during the worst period of the Cold War, political and military leaders from NATO and the Warsaw Pact actively discussed and agreed on proposals how to promote security, stability, and arms reductions.


Moreover, reviving the arms control debate would of course not relieve any party, including Russia, of its responsibilities to honor and implement existing agreements.


Also, a renewed focus on arms control would not be an indication that "we are going soft on Russia." It is possible that Russia might choose not to participate in any such efforts. In that case, Western governments may wish to consider ways to increase the costs for Russia. Only if the Kremlin concludes that arms control is in Russia's interest will tangible progress be possible.


But the U.S. and Europe should not conclude that this is not the right time for new initiatives. Arms control has never been a fair-weather instrument, but has always been at the core of Euro-Atlantic security. Given the current level of uncertainties and risks, let us not wait any longer to revive a proven security-building instrument.


Wolfgang Ischinger is the chairman of the Munich Security Conference and teaches at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. A slightly modified version of this article first appeared on December 19, 2016, in the Berlin Policy Journal.

19 December 2016, by Wolfgang Ischinger