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Commentary | 21 December 2016

Arms control in Russia–West relations: learning from the experience of the first Cold War

Image of Maxim Starchak

Maxim Starchak |Editor of Pathways to Peace and Security journal at IMEMO (Russia) and a Fellow at Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University (Canada).

Arms Control Conventional Arms Control CSBMs Nuclear Arms Control Russia Russia-West Relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security

The Russian annexation of Crimea and military support to south eastern Ukraine has led, deliberately or accidentally, to a new Cold War in Europe. The continent’s militarization is growing and arms control mechanisms are not working.

During the first Cold War, arms control agreements helped to relieve the pressure in relations between the USSR and the West. Arms control could also help to boost security in Europe today, especially as we can see similarities between the Soviet policy goals of the past and those of Russia today.

During the Cold War, the USSR was motivated by the desire to negotiate with the West and to reaffirm its role in European security. Different projects were offered to fix the post-war borders in Europe, to stop the “militarization” of Germany, and stop its membership of NATO. Modern Russia is also trying to consolidate its role in European security. Moscow offered to participate in the development and management of European missile defense, it also tried to assert its influence on the continent through promoting a European Security Treaty in 2008.

What helped to negotiate arms control agreements during the Cold War?

First, Moscow initiated the normalization of relations with the European states which were problematic. In 1970, the Moscow Treaty between the USSR and the Federal Republic of Germany was signed. This agreement allowed the parties to recognize each other, with the USSR de facto recognizing the border between the two Germanies and the absence of any territorial claims.

Second, there was willingness to further develop bilateral relations between the USSR and the US. In the 1970s, the arms control agreements on SALT-I, missile defense, and SALT-II were signed . These agreements were important not only in and of themselves. They also confirmed the readiness to treat each other as partners.

Third, the Soviet Union agreed to arms control talks whilst being in economic difficulty, conducting an exhausting nuclear arms race in a country that was economically weakened. Russia today is now also in an unenviable economic situation, experiencing a budget deficit, growing costs of social services, whilst managing sanctions and a downturn in oil prices. Russia can attempt to hide it, but its defense spending places significant pressure on its already strained budget. If there is a legally acceptable and attractive opportunity (which would not negatively damage its image) to reduce the costs of military build-up, Russia will be inclined to take it.

The ground for new negotiations on arms control is not ready yet. The proposals put forward by the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frank Walter Steinmeier were seen by Russia as premature.

It is impossible to lure Russia into conventional arms control negotiations in the form similar to the CFE Treaty. Crimea was added to the list of problems which include Transnistria and parts of South Caucasus. The complete withdrawal of Russia from these zones, a condition pushed by NATO countries in the 1990s, seems even more difficult to achieve now. Russia has become stronger and more confident in defending its interests and will not surrender its positions. NATO should therefore recognize the status quo on Russian troops’ presence in the Crimea, Transnistria, and Abkhazia and take the issue off the negotiating table. These problems should be discussed in separate negotiations.

The narrow view of arms control is also a problem. Steinmeier’s suggestions are limited to particular regions and consist of the technical agenda based on the CFE and possibly adding control over new elements such as drone warfare. Russia links conventional arms control with the issues of tactical nuclear weapons and the US missile defense system in Europe. Dialogue on conventional arms will necessarily end up with discussion on Russian and US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The missile shield threat also remains a priority issue for the Russian authorities.

For NATO, it is important to resolve the issues of conventional arms control, the increase in size and frequency of Russian military exercises, and other military activities. Despite the fact that Russia is not presently interested in discussing these issues, movement in these areas would be the least painful concessions for Russia. It is important to maintain the status quo, with clearly defined borders for both sides, so Russian forces should remain de facto in Crimea and NATO forces in Eastern Europe.

Finally, negotiations on bilateral security guarantees between Russia and individual countries in Eastern Europe would help to prepare the ground for broader arms control negotiations. That said, good relations, for example with the Baltic States, seem to hold no value in Russian foreign policy.

Realizing the complexity of the negotiations, some recommend starting with small incremental steps: an agreement with NATO to prohibit the stationing of additional substantial forces in the border areas, or agreements on conflict prevention. However, small steps will not build confidence and will not secure the peace. In order to create a space in Europe where each side will be confident in its own security, it is necessary to engage in a comprehensive discussion on arms control.

In the meantime, there is no overall consensus that such negotiations are needed. From a pessimistic viewpoint, only further deployment of the US missile defense system in Europe and the deployment of Iskandar missiles in response can force both parties to the negotiating table. From an optimistic viewpoint, the new Republican US President could become an important figure in initiating détente, as Richard Nixon was during the Cold War, able to start negotiations with Russia without preconditions.

It is naive to expect that the mutual confidence needs to be established before the start of arms control negotiations. The Soviet Union and US did not trust each other in the first years of the Cold War, but the arms control measures initiated at that time ultimately led to increased confidence and finally to detente.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.