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Commentary | 24 September 2013

The Right Case for European Conventional Arms Control in 2013

Image of Samuel Charap

Samuel Charap |Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Arms Control Conventional Arms Control CSBMs Defence Europe NATO Russia-West Relations Security Euro-Atlantic Security

 “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”

– Dwight Eisenhower


When raising the topic of European conventional arms control (CAC) these days in Washington, one should be prepared for quizzical expressions from interlocutors. With crises in Syria and Iran, the “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific, and Europe’s own pressing economic troubles, the response to expect goes something like this: why bother spending time on this issue? During the New START debate, some commentators even declared nuclear arms control less important than free trade with Central American countries. While that sort of hyperbole is not reflective of the current administration’s views on nuclear arms control, CAC is not nearly as high on the agenda.

And frankly that’s understandable. For all states in the Euro-Atlantic region, CAC falls in that unlucky basket of issues that are important, but not urgent; and, despite Eisenhower’s sage advice, all the region’s capitals seem to be driven by what is urgent these days. Additionally, CAC’s chequered recent history – the death of A/CFE while stillborn; Russia’s December 2007 “suspension” of CFE; the November 2011 NATO countermeasures; etc. – complicates matters further, especially at a time of deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations. No government wants to risk political capital on an issue that seems a tough slog at best and an outright loser at worst.

The problem is made even more acute by those CAC advocates who rest their case for the issue on two equally unconvincing arguments. The first one often hears relates to linkage: we should pursue CAC since it is linked to [insert other, more pressing, issue here, such as missile defense (MD), non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW), nuclear arms control]. Indeed, although thinking in terms of linkages when discussing arms control is commonplace, the habit is deeply counterproductive. Different security regimes are negotiated in different contexts with different constellations of states present at the table. They are therefore not amenable to trade-offs. Each issue involves different incentives, actors, and veto players. Further, there is no inherent link between the issues themselves, so it is unclear why regimes to address them should be tied together. The reason usually cited is a belief that Russia will insist on such a linkage; however, Moscow has yet to do so and until it officially does, such an assertion is conjecture at best. But even if Russia were to attempt to link CAC to other issues, that would not be a very convincing case in Western capitals for negotiating a new CAC agreement.

Historically arms control and confidence building efforts on multiple issues have been most successful when they have proceeded in parallel simultaneously. A good example is the original CFE and START I – mutually reinforcing simultaneous negotiation processes that were not formally linked. States in the Euro-Atlantic region should pursue agreements on NSNW, MD, and CAC – but they should do so in each of their appropriate channels.

The second non-compelling rationale for CAC in 2013 is the rationale for the original CFE Treaty: addressing a destabilizing quantity of conventional arms on the European continent. That problem has been resolved in no small part through implementation of this important treaty, which eliminated 72,000 pieces of Cold War military equipment. Today numbers continue to drop significantly in most countries in the region, independently of treaty obligations.

But achieving numerical balance is unnecessary in principle thanks to the end of bipolar confrontation on the continent. In the NATO-Russia context today, imbalance in holdings of conventional armaments is a problem only because of uncertainty over intentions and security dilemmas. Before, balance was necessary because of certainty of intentions: NATO and the Warsaw Pact were enemies. Adversaries think in terms of balances. Partners do not — or at least they should not.

While these two reasons – all too often cited by CAC advocates – are not convincing, there are in fact very compelling reasons to pursue a new CAC agreement for Europe. A new conventional arms control regime for Europe, done right, can significantly improve security on the continent by helping to address some of the security problems of 2013. Three specific objectives should guide a potential new regime:

  1. Addressing pockets of insecurity that still exist among Euro-Atlantic states, particularly in sensitive areas, and providing an inclusive, multilateral forum where neighboring counties with difficult relationships can have recourse for their disputes.
  2. Improving the security environment surrounding territorial disputes and protracted conflicts.
  3. Revitalizing the inclusive, region-wide security architecture in order to continue the process of transformation of the Euro-Atlantic security environment that began in the late 1980s with the end of the Cold War.

As far as the first two objectives are concerned, policymakers should look to successful CAC regimes elsewhere. The CAC/CSBM regime that governs the former Sino-Soviet border is an example of one that successfully addressed pockets of insecurity in sensitive areas. It consists of two agreements, signed by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in 1996 and 1997. The first is entitled Confidence Building in the Military Field in the Border Area (aka the Shanghai Agreement); the second, On The Mutual Reduction of Armed Forces in the Border Area (aka the Moscow Agreement). The pair of agreements can be compared to Vienna Document and CFE. Indeed, the text of the documents demonstrates extensive borrowing of concepts from the CAC regime on the other side of the Urals. But the 1996/1997 agreements are conceptually distinct from their Euro-Atlantic antecedents in one key respect: both were locational – they applied only to deployments, movements, exercises, etc., within a 100km zone on either side of the border. Parties had to provide information, accept inspections, reduce numbers, and notify deployments  — but only within that zone. Given the history of Sino-Soviet conflict along the border, that approach was sensible.  And it has had a significant impact. By resolving tensions and building trust around a historically sensitive area, it was the key first step toward the unprecedented warming of Russia-China relations that occurred over the past decade. And the agreements formed the initial Shanghai Five grouping that led to the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

This locational approach to CAC and related CSBMs – where the measures are focused on areas of concern to the parties – is needed for any new European CAC arrangement. Indeed, the one common security concern among potential states parties to a future Euro-Atlantic agreement is about concentration of forces and equipment – or potential for concentration of forces and equipment — in sensitive areas. Different countries define sensitive areas differently, but not one state cites continent-wide quantities of conventional armaments as a primary security concern. Going forward, location-based measures with accountability at a Euro-Atlantic region-wide level should be the cornerstone of European CAC.

A second CAC success story, this one of CAC measures successfully facilitating conflict transformation, actually can be found in Europe itself, but beyond the CFE Area of Application (AoA). In discussions of CFE’s sad fate, this issue is often talked about in terms of “linkage” between conflict resolution and the broader arms control regime. But debates about linkage are a distraction from the question we should be asking:  how can CAC help improve the security environment surrounding protracted conflicts? Neither CFE nor A/CFE were designed to do this, but the Dayton Article IV Agreement, or the Agreement on Sub-Regional Arms Control as it is formally known, was, and it accomplished something that can only be dreamed about for the protracted conflicts in the CFE AoA.: despite on-going political disputes, it has stabilized military dynamics and ruled out the use of force.  Originally signed between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY, later the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro; since their split in 2006, the republics of Montenegro and Serbia are both parties), Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, the Agreement aimed to reduce holdings of conventional weapons and build confidence among the parties involved in the conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. In its ceilings, agreed reductions and inspection regime, it was based almost completely on the CFE Treaty and has been markedly successful in its implementation. Today, it can be said that Article IV is, without question, a success story: despite the on-going ethnic tensions, contestation of the political settlement contained in the Dayton Agreement’s other Articles, and status disputes (particularly vis-à-vis Kosovo), there is military stability and security among the states and a culture of cooperation among security establishments. Article IV is a model for arms control in conflict regions.


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.