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Commentary | 26 September 2013

The Role of Conventional Arms Control in Euro-Atlantic Security: Is It Needed and Is It Achievable?

Image of Ulrich Kühn

Ulrich Kühn |Head, Arms Control and Emerging Technologies Programme, University of Hamburg

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

Conventional Arms Control in Europe―or to use a rather new acronym, CAC―does not rank very high on national security agendas in the Euro-Atlantic region these days. Other matters of arms control, such as future strategic reductions by the U.S. and Russia, the question of Russian and NATO sub-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) and, above all, missile defence―not to mention the Arab Spring, Syria, or the Snowden incident―are much more prominently positioned.


What Is CAC?

When we speak of CAC, we should first make sure what the concrete issue is. CAC is not a single agreement but rather a full-fledged regime including the CFE Treaty and its adaptation agreement (ACFE), the supporting agreement limiting military personnel (CFE-1A), the confidence- and security-building measures enshrined in the OSCE’s Vienna Document, the monitoring instrument of the Treaty on Open Skies, and the stipulations for disarmament and CSBMs in the Balkans.

The general state of this regime is easy to characterise: CAC is in a state of decay. Since 2002, CFE has been deadlocked. The latest efforts in 2011 to revive the treaty in informal consultations ‘at 36’ failed. Open Skies is deadlocked as well due to disputes involving Russia and Georgia, on the one hand, and Greece and Turkey on the other. The Vienna Document was updated in 2011, however, only on a very limited technical basis. It is still in need of substantial renovation. The good news is that, so far, the Balkans stipulations have been unaffected by this generally negative trend.


Is It Still Needed?

More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the valid question of whether CAC is still needed arises. Its current state could easily trigger simplistic explanations along the lines of ‘mission accomplished’. The underlying hypothesis is that there is simply no need for CAC anymore. This might particularly be the case for CFE. From a technical point of view, an accord based on CFE’s five weapons categories plus incorporated geographical limitations forestalling large-scale pincer movements through the flanks is very much outdated. It does not reflect modern conventional warfare, particularly not in the realm of net-centric warfare. From a political point of view, NATO and Russia do not consider each other to be enemies anymore. Despite continued political differences, they work together on a range of issues from Afghanistan to combating transnational terrorism. An accord focusing on mutual NATO-Russian force reductions, based on thinned-out zones and notions of balance is therefore simply obsolete. Following this logic, the CFE, at least, is superfluous in today’s security environment.

However, the security situation in Europe is not characterised by “democracy, peace and unity”, as hoped for in the 1990 CSCE Charter of Paris. On the contrary, in 2008, Russia and Georgia entered an unexpected five-day war. 2009 saw two large-scale manoeuvres involving the anticipated fielding of Russian tactical nuclear weapons close to NATO’s borders. Meanwhile, tensions are steadily increasing between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Finally, NATO and Russia are unable to find common ground on missile defence due to the inability to trust each other. Hence, the question is not whether CAC is needed but where and for which purposes.


For Which Purposes?

The problems described point to two general layers of insecurity. In the first layer, NATO and Russia are trapped in old agendas and follow outdated Cold War logic. The perceived threat of missile defence triggers Russia to reciprocate with signs of military strength, including manoeuvres based on aggressive scenarios. Following Lagoda and Zapad, the Baltic States have successfully called for an adjustment of NATO contingency planning to include the three countries. Here, CAC, or more precisely, conventional reassurance mechanisms that address existing disparities, could be a less costly alternative to enhanced alliance commitments. In concrete terms, a new regional CAC approach towards the Baltic region should not follow a disarmament impetus but strive to eliminate the possibility of a rapid upward revision of highly specialised forces. The key to achieving such a solution lies in defining a reciprocal and modern application of the “substantial combat forces” formula for both NATO and Russian forces. Beyond the direct regional implications, a refurbished CAC approach could also be the missing link to the protracted debates about NSNW removal and missile defence. However, one should be realistic about CAC’s role and impact and not confuse it with a ‘silver bullet’. Generally speaking, (conventional) arms control measures in their best understanding should serve to increase national security on a reciprocal basis.

In the second, sub-regional, layer, CAC should play a defining role in forestalling local arms races as it already does in the Balkans. As a part of CFE, the heavy military equipment of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were limited on an equal basis. Here, in a sub-regional setting, limitations still make sense. Besides limitations, transparency measures on regular and non-state forces could significantly improve the tense situation surrounding disputed entities such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. On the one hand, such measures would have to fill the old CFE loophole and devise concrete transparency measures on non-state equipment as well; on the other hand, they would have to be status-neutral to forestall a political rather than a technical handling. As an initial step, states not involved in the conflicts should refrain from choosing sides. Even though the need for CAC in those regions is most obvious, its realization requires a maximum of readiness for compromise and non-dogmatic flexibility by all parties.


Is It Achievable, and How?

This caveat leads to the final question: Is a new approach on CAC achievable, and if so, how? To be quite frank, the obstacles seem even more paramount these days. Given the implications of the Russian military reform, the worsening relations between the West and Russia, possible reservations in the U.S. Senate, and a general decline in political interest and technical experience surrounding CAC, a legally binding accord that addresses all categories of today’s conventional warfare is out of reach. At the moment, politicians would be well advised to follow a strategy of damage limitation. For the time being, the focus has to be on halting the further erosion of the CAC regime and on keeping all communication channels open.

Here, Germany, as one of the old ‘gatekeepers’ of CAC comes into play. Large segments of the German security establishment still ascribe CFE the role of a ‘cornerstone of European security’. The latest international conference on CAC in Berlin in July 2013 underscored the need for openly exchanging potential concepts and reservations. It also came to the conclusion that European leadership on CAC, backed by creative track two initiatives, is vital for moving forward.


A Europe Without CAC?

Against the background of the crumbling CAC regime, policy-makers as well as political analysts should ask themselves what a Euro-Atlantic security space would look like without CAC. Would it be more or less secure? Would it be mainly driven by threat perceptions or by mutual reassurance? Should it rely mainly on collective security or on arrangements that give cooperative security a voice as well? Whatever the answers to these questions are, they will have to reflect the realities of 2013 and beyond. A modern approach to CAC, including regional reassurance mechanisms, sub-regional limitations, and specifically tailored transparency measures would contribute positively to Europe’s security.


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.