Nuclear Comeback Time in Europe?

July 11, 2019
Nikolai Sokov

Loccum Evangelishe Academie

Loccum Evangelishe Academie

The following is a presentation delivered on the panel, “Introductory Impulses on Central Building Blocks for Future Arms Control Initiatives,” at the Evangelishe Akademie, Loccum, Germany, June 24–26, 2019.

A discussion of options for arms control in Europe has to begin with a definition of (1) what we need to achieve, (2) what arms control can achieve, and (3) what is feasible to achieve. Otherwise, such a discussion could be derailed by steps that might be desirable, but are either not feasible or not necessary. A no-first-use (NFU) policy, for instance, while desirable, is certain to be rejected by key nuclear-weapon states (NWS) at this point; nor is it necessary, as it is possible to enhance stability in Europe without it. In a way, NFU is even counterproductive: political capital spent on an unsuccessful attempt to push through NFU could be utilized toward more achievable and no less tangible goals.

What Europe Needs to Achieve

What we need to achieve is much narrower than what we might want to achieve. We want, obviously, peace, prosperity, cooperation, and all other nice things. We need, however, much less, although it is still a tall order: we need security understood, in ascending order, as (1) the absence of war, (2) low probability of war, (3) low probability of unintended armed confrontations that could trigger escalation, and (4) the absence of capability on both sides (and it is, once again, two sides—Russia and NATO) to win a hypothetical war.

The first two are in hand: Europe is not at war and neither side has plans to start one, but the rest of the “wish list” is problematic. Confrontations in the air and often at sea happen with increasing frequency and are fraught with unintended escalation; dangerous behavior is readily publicized; there is no effort to seriously investigate incidents and instead parties blame each other. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the Cold War, when the opposing alliances were more cautious, at least in the second half of that period. The security dilemma in Europe today is also massively greater than what we knew during the Cold War. Then, the West considered itself to be inferior to the Soviet Union in conventional forces—an assessment the Soviet Union disputed—but today, the conventional inferiority of Russia vis-à-vis NATO is much greater. At the same time, Russia is incomparably more powerful than neighboring members of NATO (the Baltic states first of all). Thus, not only has the security dilemma worsened, it has also become more complex and is virtually unresolvable in the near term.

One way to deal with the security dilemma is to learn to live with it. To accept it cannot be resolved in the foreseeable future and use arms-control tools to make sure it does not worsen or explode in a war. Neither party—and, unfortunately, primarily the West—is prepared for that. Instead, the resolution of political conflict is often seen as a precondition for arms control. It can be said that the art of drawing the line between political conflict and arms control, which the East and West learned the hard way after a series of crises that put the world on the brink of war, has been lost.

The impending collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty illustrates the change in the mindset. The substance of mutual recriminations aside, three or four decades ago, similar issues were dealt with in a different manner. Both sides were more businesslike, more prepared to go an extra step to resolve differences, and when such differences could not be readily resolved (such as, for example, with US accusations about the Soviet violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile [ABM] Treaty), they did not prevent arms-control dialogue on other issues. There is little doubt that issues pertaining to the implementation of the INF Treaty could be resolved; all that was needed was for both sides to address it in the same manner they did it in the past. Unfortunately, this no longer seems feasible.

The issue is not limited to governments. Public support for arms control is not as strong or widespread as it used to be during the Cold War. In states with a key role in arms control (the United States, Russia, certain members of NATO, including new members), the public simply no longer fears nuclear war as much as they did in the past. The structure of politics has changed, too. In the age of “electronic politics” (social networks, proliferation of Internet publications, and the availability of raw data—such as satellite imagery—to nongovernmental organizations), governments no longer control the agenda and may not enjoy sufficient degree of freedom to pursue policies. Empowerment of the public is, overall, a positive phenomenon, but at the same time, it can block limited cooperation ventures by governments and even unintentionally contribute to escalation of conflicts. For example, social networks can help generate large-scale focused campaigns that inhibit delineation between issue-areas (for example, “how can we negotiate with them on anything if they are untrustworthy”); disclosure of information can undermine confidential contacts (one could consider that the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis could have developed differently if the entire set of pictures of Soviet missiles in Cuba were to become public knowledge at the same time they became available to President Kennedy). Of course, this phenomenon can work both ways: not only public and experts become more influential, but policy making also becomes more vulnerable to outside intereference that uses the same tools. It is sufficient to say that the environment in which policy is made today is very different from the period of “classic” arms control.

Thus, the condition of peace that we continue to enjoy cannot be regarded as stable. Political conflicts dominate the security agenda and there are few impediments to escalation; even worse, many among policy makers and the public would rather encourage escalation without giving sufficient thought to the danger of slipping into war. It seems that the only way to relearn forgotten lessons of the Cold War— first and foremost, the ability to practice arms control in spite of broader political conflicts—is to repeat the old pattern of coming to the brink of war, which could have a sobering influence. That is, if we are once again lucky enough to survive it.

What Arms Control Can Achieve and How?

If we relearn the ability to pursue arms control under conditions of political conflict, it may become possible to stabilize the military dimensions of that conflict, reduce uncertainty about intentions and capabilities of parties, and help prevent or control escalation. While this will not be easy given the imbalance of capabilities and political impediments described above, the task is achievable. On the positive side, the international community has considerable experience in arms control and a ready-to-use toolbox.

The main questions are: who will negotiate, which format will work best, and which issues it may be feasible to address at this stage.

The answer to the question who will lead the dialogue on the side of the West is not obvious.

Historically, the lead actor in arms control was the United States, whether in bilateral or multilateral formats. Key treaties pertaining to nuclear weapons were negotiated bilaterally; the United States consulted its NATO allies and, to the extent possible, modified its position to account for their interests, but when necessary pressed them to accept deal that had been made with Russia (this happened, for example, when Germany had to agree to the elimination of Pershing I missiles to make the INF Treaty possible).

This time, however, such time-honored arrangements might not work. The current administration is largely negative toward arms control or, at best, not interested in bilateral dialogue (its main goal seems to be the involvement of China). Whereas the majority of the expert community strongly favors an arms-control dialogue with Moscow, Congress and a significant part of the public remain negative toward serious engagement with Russia on any issue, and will likely retain that attitude beyond the next election, regardless of who wins. While the value of arms control is usually recognized, that recognition is often reluctant and is conditioned by a resolution of broader political issues.

NATO as a whole can hardly pick up the ball: its decisions are heavily influenced (in fact, can be vetoed) by the United States and some of its members have sharply negative views on any dialogue with Russia, at least until the present government in Moscow is replaced by something more acceptable to the West. The NATO-Russia Council, which in theory could be an appropriate venue, is almost defunct.

The European Union has had little to do with arms control in the past and it is difficult to see it changing that stance in the near future. It has become more active in that field recently but is still long way from becoming a full actor.

More importantly, the very structure of the EU (same as that of NATO, incidentally) is poorly fit for the role of a negotiating party. Its decisions are made by consensus. Consequently, they take time and effort and tend to gravitate toward the lowest common denominator. This mechanism may still produce a reasonably acceptable opening position (opening positions are often intentionally tougher than the likely acceptable outcome), but the course of deliberations will be too public for effective bargaining at subsequent stages. Even worse, negotiations require adjustments in the original position, and these will require the same process. So far, the EU has demonstrated (for example, during negotiations on various association agreements) that it tends to stick to the opening position if only because few would wish to go through the same exhausting process of internal negotiations with questionable chance of success, given the high likelihood that tougher-minded members can block these adjustments.

It has been often said that internal interagency negotiations are more difficult than negotiations with the other state. In the case of the EU, this is multiplied several times. The chance of the EU holding successful negotiations as a whole, especially on such a complex issue as arms control, are slim.

The other side of the same question is with whom Russia will be prepared to negotiate. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that Moscow will negotiate with anyone who agrees to talk to it. This is not exactly the case. It would certainly talk to the United States, but Washington does not seem to ready for it. It does not see NATO as a potential partner and has not even appointed a new permanent representative or a new military representative. The EU as a whole is not seen as a good partner, either, because dialogue with the EU on other issues has been excruciatingly slow and because some members of the EU are expected to block any progress.

Besides the traditional arms-control interlocutor, the US, Russia prefers countries with a demonstrated track record of listening to Russia and treating its concerns seriously. The potential interlocutor does not need to agree with Russia; the ability to engage in a business-like dialogue and bargaining with a view at an eventual agreement is more important. Plus, the potential partner has to be in position of authority vis-à-vis other European countries. Judging by these criteria, the list of potential Russian interlocutors is pretty short and, in effect, is limited to Germany and perhaps France.

Whether Germany, alone or jointly with France, could directly engage with Russia on arms control is an interesting question. There are precedents that seem to allow such an arrangement—negotiations with Iran were not conducted by the entire EU, but by three members with the outcome subsequently approved by the EU and the UN Security Council. It is not unthinkable that the same mode is applied to arms control with Russia. Of course, the EU cannot be expected to grant some of its members a mandate to negotiate with Russia, but nothing prevents EU members from taking initiative and keeping the rest abreast of developments (same as the United States always kept NATO members abreast of its dealings with the Soviet Union and later Russia).

This does not mean that the format of negotiations should be the same as past US-Soviet/Russian negotiations or talks with Iran. Germany is not in a position to negotiate the text of a treaty or sign it, neither alone nor jointly with France. To begin with, no arms-control treaty is possible without the most powerful military power in the West, the United States. They can, however, discuss the mandate for future negotiations, including the scope of the agreement(s), relationship between issue-areas, geographical scope, basic rules for accounting and verification, etc. A model to keep in mind is the mandate for the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty negotiations, although on a less formal basis.

Such a discussion could best proceed informally through consultations, conferences, a series of Track 1.5 meetings, and similar channels. An advantage of the informal approach is the opportunity to include experts and perhaps officials from other countries, first and foremost from the United States, which would allow taking the likely views and interests of their countries into account. In such an arrangement, Germany (possibly together with France) would play the role of an initiator and a facilitator rather than a negotiating party.

Outcomes of these discussions could be introduced to the multilateral governmental format via the Structured Dialogue, a forum launched within the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) framework in 2016 and originally proposed by Germany. Although practical work there has been de facto blocked, it nonetheless appears the least conflict-prone format today. On its own, it can hardly deliver early results, but could be a fitting forum for discussion of preliminary agreements and shared understandings achieved in a less formal and more confidential setting.

The agenda for informal confidential discussions has to satisfy the criterion of feasibility, meaning that (1) discussions are guided by the principle of consensus, i.e., they are acceptable to all parties and constitute a reasonably balanced package of measures that address concerns of all and (2) they are limited in scope, since the current political climate does not favor far-ranging comprehensive agreements; a modest improvement would already be an important achievement. It is also worth keeping in mind that these two principles may be mutually contradictory to a certain degree, because achieving a balanced package might in some cases require expanding the scope of the tentative agreement. One example of such approach is the transition from the MBFR (mutual and balanced conventional forces reduction in Central Europe) to CFE (reduction of conventional forces in the entire Europe) format in mid-1980s, which helped to overcome the persistent multiyear deadlock of the former negotiations.

The two immediate tasks are preventing a new Euromissile crisis and preventing confrontations that can result in escalation.

Addressing the confrontation over the nearly defunct INF Treaty is a challenge that can no longer be resolved within its narrow confines. It is certainly possible to fashion a set of measures that would help resolve the controversy over compliance, but that would require in-depth verification and transparency measures. Specifically, Russia will need to conduct a more thorough demonstration of the 7M729 missile and perhaps to conduct a test launch with provision of telemetry to demonstrate its range; the United States will need to address Russian concerns as well (in particular with regard to suspected ability of Aegis Onshore to launch cruise missiles) with equal degree of seriousness. Such measures are not politically feasible, at least in the near future.

Trying to avoid an arms race resulting from the collapse of the INF Treaty is equally challenging. Proposals for NATO to forego deployment of INF-range missiles is difficult to justify, because NATO believes Russia already has missiles in that category; NATO’s decision to deploy only a limited number of missiles will not be acceptable to Russia because NATO says it does not have any; thus, even limited deployment by NATO could trigger an arms race. The proposal that NATO should limit itself to deploying only conventionally armed missiles will not help either because there is no reliable way to differentiate between nuclear and conventional systems and, furthermore, Russia apparently emphasizes a conventional capability anyway, meaning that the two parties could engage in a conventional arms race, each suspecting the other of deploying nuclear missiles. A popular proposal that NATO limit its response to air- and sea-launched INF-range systems will only revive the controversy that haunted INF negotiations (the treaty only applies to land-based systems, which was a source of unending complaints by the Soviet Union) and represents one of the central concerns of Russia, both at the regional and the strategic level.

One possible option might be to expand limitations and make them only politically binding (essentially, confidence-building measures, or CBMs). A new regime could emphasize restraint in deployment of all missiles above 300 km range (that is, including Russian Iskander), including sea- and perhaps also air-launched ones, including an obligation to avoid significant concentration of such weapons and their platforms (ships, submarines, and bombers) in and around Europe. National technical means would be sufficient to verify flexible non-binding restrictions, but the regime could be complemented with visits upon request as necessary. Eventually, if CBMs are sufficiently successful, they might be replaced with a legally binding regime with more intrusive verification.

Such a measure could address a range of concerns of both sides—in particular, both Russia’s concern about sea- and air launched weapons of the Untied States and NATO, and concerns of some NATO members about Russian Iskander missiles. It would also be forward looking: Russia is deploying long-range air- and sea-based conventional precision-guided weapons that can reach all of Europe and are more usable than nuclear ones, thus representing a concern for NATO in the coming years.

As a complementary step, NATO and Russia could reaffirm the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which resulted in deep reduction of tactical nuclear weapons and whose status is now uncertain. Such a reaffirmation will not change the nuclear postures in Europe (in particular, it will preserve the current limited number of US B-61 bombs in Europe), but could help ensure a more predictable and stable environment in Europe.

The second area for arms-control action in the coming years could be the expansion of the Vienna Document. Such an expansion could include measures with regard to long-range precision-guided weapons outlined above (300 km and more in all basing modes) as well as stricter limits on maneuvers, measures to prevent incidents related to overflights of military aircraft (the use of transponders), and perhaps a more ambitious freeze on deployment of ground forces in the vicinity of the other side’s borders. As in the case of long-range missiles, detailed “hard” limitations and intrusive verification are not feasible, at least not yet and perhaps are not even necessary. A more flexible, non-binding or politically binding regime could be sufficient to improve the situation in Europe.

The centerpiece of the new regime should be long-range strike assets which, since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, have become the main tool of warfighting. Traditional conventional forces, such as tanks or artillery, have become relatively secondary; although their high concentration can be perceived as threatening, on their own (that is, without the long-range strike component) they can hardly be used in war nowadays. For that reason, the 1990 CFE Treaty format (that treaty limited the number of tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft, artillery, and helicopters) can be considered outdated.

Any regime that addresses conventional forces in Europe (long-range strike capability and traditional armed forces) should proceed from the recognition that the security dilemma centered around Baltic states cannot be resolved in the foreseeable future—these states are almost encircled by Russia, which is simply so much bigger by default. It is, however, possible to prevent the worsening of that security dilemma and to reduce the likelihood of incidents in and above the Baltic Sea. Similar measures could be perhaps considered with regard to the Black Sea, but this is politically more challenging and could be postponed until later.

Within the OSCE or another format, Russia and the United States, or Russia and NATO, could resume discussion of their military doctrines and strategies; eventually the same dialogue could be expanded to the P-5 format and include at least all official nuclear states. Such exchanges played an important role in moving arms control forward in the second half of the 1980s, and there is no reason why this cannot happen today.

Finally, it is imperative to radically improve the military-to-military communication to prevent incidents on high seas and in international airspace. It might make sense to expand the 1972 US-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement to include other European countries and preferably make it global. US and Russian militaries created and have implemented, with a reasonable degree of success, an incident-prevention regime in Syria; a similar mechanism is needed in and around Europe. It remains to be seen whether the NATO-Russia Council is the appropriate framework for such communication; that structure has been highly politicized, and it will take time to revive it. Perhaps a separate mechanism (under the aegis of the OSCE) would be more appropriate and easier to establish.

At the current stage, nuclear arms control does not appear feasible, although it remains at the center of attention of the international security discourse. The maximum that can be achieved is the extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which limited US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, and which expires in February 2021. Even that is far from assured: the current US administration shows little interest in such an extension and Russia has conditioned it by serious discussion of its concerns about the implementation of that treaty by the United States (it wants confirmation that conversion of certain strategic delivery vehicles to remove them from accounting was irreversible); so far, the United States has rejected Russian concerns as unfounded.

At a more fundamental level, acute political conflict and high degree of uncertainty make further reduction of nuclear weapons unlikely. Key nuclear states continue to value them perhaps even more than they did tens or twenty years ago. Much in the same way that NATO during the Cold War emphasized nuclear weapons to balance Soviet conventional superiority, Russia today relies on them to balance US and NATO conventional superiority. Now that Russia has acquired long-range conventional weapons (as yet in relatively small numbers, but that number is growing), the United States appears to consider an elevated role of nuclear weapons in its national security policy as well; eventually this attitude might expand to the entire NATO. Before a nuclear-arms-reduction process resumes, it is necessary to stabilize the overall security situation in the world, and especially in Europe.

The Next Stage: Beyond CBMs

If expansion of CBMs outlined above is successful (i.e., new CBMs are achieved and are reasonably smoothly implemented for several years), it might be possible to transition to the next stage of an arms-control dialogue. The next stage could concentrate on a package of measures that should include, in addition to nuclear weapons, missile defense and stricter limits on long-range conventional weapons, including the hypersonic variety (these will start coming online in a few years).

The part of the package that relates to nuclear weapons could include the following elements:

  • Transition from accounting by delivery vehicles to accounting by actual physical weapons, both deployed and non-deployed. Such a shift could help strengthen the line between nuclear and conventional weapons and indirectly address short-range nuclear weapons. This is also the only way forward to eventually eliminating nuclear weapons (along the lines of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons). Such a shift, however, is challenging, since it would necessitate opening the most sensitive facilities to inspection: nuclear-weapons storage, production, and dismantlement facilities. It is also desirable to fashion a set of measures to guarantee that fissile materials removed from weapons during dismantlement are not cycled back into weapons production. The experience of Cooperative Threat Reduction programs could help design relevant measures, same as the results of work of the Trilateral Initiative (with regard to plutonium).
  • Accounting for nuclear-capable delivery vehicles should be expanded to include new categories of weapons (such as the Russian long-range torpedo, long-range aeroballistic missiles, or the future cruise missiles with a nuclear engine). Numerical limits, however, could be relaxed as long as warheads become accountable. The future arrangement will have to draw a distinction between systems equipped with nuclear and conventional warheads. The START line of treaties almost completely skips the latter, but limits (numerical and geographic) will be necessary because the former are intended to balance the latter; without limits on the latter (admittedly, less strict), limits on the former will be rejected by Russia.
  • The package could include a mutual obligation not to develop new types or modification of warheads, including low-yield ones. This might be too late to stop or reverse ongoing programs, but it could be a useful confidence-building measure.

Missile defense is, in principle, relatively easy to limit, because even Russia does not insist on something similar to the ABM Treaty. The main problem is the attitude in the US Congress and domestic politics in general in the United States, which continues to hold wildly exaggerated views on what missile defense can do now or in the near future (this “near future” has already lasted almost 40 years). Moreover, American rejection of any limits on missile defense will likely eventually run into a serious problem, because Russia is working hard on similar systems and eventually—perhaps not that far into the future—the United States will need to face a Russian missile-defense capability that will be similar to what the United States will have by that time.

To enhance predictability of missile-defense capabilities and thus enhance the long-term stability of strategic balance, it would be sufficient to establish limits on various categories of missile defense systems as well as on their geographic distribution. These limits need not be strict; Russia would prefer accepting limits that exceed current US plans over the absence of any limits whatsoever. The United States and especially NATO will also eventually benefit from these limits, as Russian programs continue.

Limits on long-range conventional weapons could continue the path outlined in the previous section, but restrictions should perhaps become stricter, especially on concentration of platforms in the vicinity of Europe, and maybe even become global to include systems deployed in and near US territory. One possible addition, particularly vital given the emergence of hypersonic weapons (both the anti-ship and the anti-land varieties), will be special procedures that regulate behavior when ships approach each other or the territory of the other side.

To summarize the main arguments:

  • Almost anything can be done in arms control as long as there is political will and arms control is separated from broader political issues and conflicts.
  • Future arms control can be, with certain exceptions like accounting for nuclear weapons, be less formal and emphasize transparency and confidence building. The key tasks are (1) preventing incidents that could result in escalation; (2) developing tools to prevent and control escalation; (3) maintaining strategic stability; and (4) preventing a concentration of forces and strike assets that the other side could perceive as preparation for war.
  • It is important to understand the limits of arms control—it can ensure the absence of war and stability, but it cannot resolve all political issues, nor security dilemmas; we will need to live with those and to control them.
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