Arms Control is Back – or is it?

According to US leaks the Biden administration is open for real discussion about arms control, provided that that is indeed the intent of the Putin regime. These could include confidence building measures surrounding military exercises, the number of US and Russian troops stationed in and opposite Poland and the Baltic States, as well as reductions in long-range weapon systems.

Make no mistake, this would without doubt be a most welcome development.

One of the most under-reported aspects of this new Cold War is the almost complete breakdown of what in fact was a rather extensive number of arms control and arms reduction treaties covering both conventional weapons and forces as well as weapons of mass destruction. This year will see the fifty year anniversary of SALT I, and in the time since there has been (or rather, had been) significant advances in the field. A rejuvenated arms control regime would certainly be a fitting way of celebration, because at the end of the day, while no treaty is perfect, the world in general is safer, there’s less room for misunderstandings, and you have a better situational picture and understanding of your opponent and their options if there is a solid framework of treaties in place. Even a simple “let’s get back to the CFE, INF, and Open Skies“-would be most welcome.

Any reduction in troops in Europe is often seen as favouring Russia as troops moved beyond Ural are easier to ferry back to the border than troops pulled back to the states. That is indeed the case, but arms control is one of the fields were allowing the lack of the perfect to stand in the way of the good might prove counterproductive. An imperfect agreement might still be better than none at all. Source: via Wikimedia Commons

The current diplomatic situation as a whole is in many ways not beneficial to the free world, as most of the recent talks between Russia and the US has taken place following threatening Russian behaviour. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that that reward the Kremlin doing bad things to get attention. Everyone knows that the US would like to pivot to China, which obviously also tells Moscow that Washington sees the current superpower hierarchy as going 1) themselves, 2) Beijing, and 3) Moscow (maybe, or then they’re just a regional power with nukes in an important region). That is obviously not how the Kremlin would prefer things, and if the only way to get to the US to treat them as equals is to march a hundred-thousand troops up and down the Ukrainian border, well, so be it. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be worth settling in for one of two options: either talks should happen without the need for serious threats to kick them off, or alternatively talks shouldn’t happen at all, regardless of the Russian behaviour. The second option obviously is a somewhat dangerous one, while the first easily could lead to appeasement.

It is important to remember that arms reduction treaties are not a reward for good behaviour and being a decent chap. Instead, the reason for talks is exactly that the other side is made up of jerks that are doing stupid stuff. When the JCPOA-treaty about Iran’s nuclear weapons was in the headlines, a friend of mine who is a staunch supporter of democracy was surprised to learn that I supported the deal with that decidedly undemocratic and untrustworthy country. “Would I have supported a deal with Hitler?” my friend asked. “Yes,” was my answer. “Because one of the few things worse than fighting the Second World War would have been fighting the Second World War against a Nazi-Germany armed with nuclear weapons.”

That analogy is a bad mix of Goodwin’s law and counterfactual history, but it gets the point through.

Having established why I believe that arms control talks in principle would benefit the West by giving us a clearer picture on what the Russians are doing and removing or transferring some of the most aggressive capabilities further from the border to ensure a longer build-up before any Russian attack, I will unfortunately have to crash my own party by stating that I don’t think there is any hope for real and productive talks any time soon. This basically rests on the worldview found in the Kremlin.

In short, the basic premise for any arms control treaties is that they are based on reciprocity, i.e. that the sides agree to take similar steps and allow each other to have the same rights. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Russia sees the security concerns of Estonia as equally valid as their own ones, and I don’t believe Russia sees NATO as a valid partner. It has been rather clear from the outset that eyes are fixed on the price of a bilateral Russia-US agreements. There are a few possible reasons behind this, one of which is that Russia believe it is easier to get concessions from the US compared to the states neighbouring Russia, or that trying to split NATO would make eventual decoupling of the US and its allies easier. However, a possibility that in my view certainly is worth serious thought is that Russia does not understand that NATO is indeed for real an organisation made up off independent states and based on consensus decision making. The US is indeed primus inter pares when it comes to anything happening within it, but this is not the same as the role played by the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact where the leading nation extended Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the form of invading armies into countries that felt they could make decisions independently (something that happened not just once, but twice, and very nearly a third time). If that is the frame of reference you have when thinking about alliances, involving the rest of the countries in any discussions are just a waste of time, and it also very effectively reduces the easternmost countries from independent states with independent security concerns into just buffer states (this certainly might explain why countries are more interested in joining the other country’s alliance instead of the one you are promoting, but reaching that insight require a certain amount of introspection and self-critical reasoning that might be anathema to the whole thing).

A word of caution here as well: if the US authorities doesn’t remember these basic facts as well, there is a very real risk of an agreement indeed leading to some level of decoupling with the easternmost NATO-countries feeling left out. Besides other obvious issues, the benefits the US gets from its network of allies and partners after all is based on the US ability to get independent states to at times compromise their own interests in the understanding that in the long-run having US support is more beneficial. If their allies start believing that they are about to be sold out in a Munich 2.0-style agreement, the US will loose influence and might indeed instead of arms reduction along both sides of the Russian border see an uptick, potentially even a small-scale arms race as countries start to invest more heavily in systems they feel hold deterrent value – such as the long-range missile systems which both the US and Russia apparently agree constitute an issue (at least the enemy once constitute an issue, the own one are obviously just peaceful deterrents).

The F-16 and the free-fall B61 nuclear bomb – not a system even close in capability to a nuclear-tipped Iskander-M (or the RS-26 Rubezh), not even with the upcoming upgrade to F-35A and B61 Mod 12. Source: USAF via Wikimedia Commons

A short tangent: some have compared NATO’s enhanced forward presence to the Cuba Crisis and asked why the US strong response there was warranted if the Russian one here isn’t. There is an obvious issues here, namely that the country which has aggressively placed nuclear-armed long-range systems close to the heartland of other countries is Russia and not NATO – the only nuclear weapons found in Europe outside of Russia is the handful of UK and French SLBMs on their submarines, a limited number of French air-launched cruise missiles stationed in France and aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as a modest number of traditional free-fall bombs found on a handful of air force bases in the old NATO countries. Russia on the other hand has aggressively developed and deployed new weapons and delivery systems, the most notable of which is the Iskander-M deployment to Kaliningrad. Of course, if the European countries doesn’t have valid security concerns and should just be happy that they aren’t occupied and should forget about being able to freely choose their partners and allies, then the argument becomes more understandable, but I rarely see those using the Cuba-card to justify Russian demands also supporting the US blockade on Cuba or the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Where does that leave us? Well, in the best of worlds, mutually constructive talks can be had and a number of steps decided upon between NATO as a whole and Russia. These might include e.g. the withdrawal of Iskander-units from Kaliningrad and the regions close to the Russian western border in exchange for NATO commitments to not station the upcoming post-INF systems within range of Russian territories, or the movement of the 76th Guards from Pskov to a more eastern location in exchange for set limits on US troops in eastern Poland, or simply the lower hanging fruit of pre-announcing exercises and attaching observers to said exercises.

Unfortunately, as mentioned I expect the Kremlin not to appreciate the fact that the EFP and other steps taken by NATO countries in the east is largely based on the very real concerns these countries have, in no small measure based on their experiences from decades of Soviet occupation and dominance. As such, reciprocity will most likely be hard to achieve. In that environment, any arms control treaty is most likely a bad idea, and won’t achieve the desired effect. Instead, there is a very real risk that any agreement would just lead to splits within the alliance.

A very specific word of warning for Finland and Sweden: in the unlikely scenario of a major transatlantic security agreement that would include restrictions to e.g. long-range weapon systems near the Russian border based on the understanding that Poland doesn’t need JASSM because the corresponding capabilities can be supplied by other NATO-members, Finland and Sweden would be left vulnerable being both unable to buy high-end capabilities from NATO-members as well as not having the protection offered by being part of the alliance. The obvious solution is to join the alliance to ensure a seat at the table, and not just the courteous phone calls afterwards informing about what the decision is.

…and while the US just selling out the countries of eastern and central Europe – either under this administration or the next one – might be an unlikely option, it is also an extremely high-impact one, and since the options for the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea then would range from bad to expensive, it is high time to start thinking about what our plan is in that case.

10 thoughts on “Arms Control is Back – or is it?

  1. EMK

    I don’t like to spread doom and gloom, but in the current situation it is hard to be hopeful. The west (writ large) seems completely unable to understand the motives and the logic behind Russia’s actions. The only exceptions being the Baltic countries and Poland. In these countries politicians, and people more generally, still remember and know the mind set of the Russian elite and state apparatus. The horrifying thing is, that nobody seems to listen to them, or take their worries and warnings seriously.

    To me, the mismatch between the west and Russia boils down to a seemingly minor difference in thinking. We in the west are accustomed to find win-win solutions to problems. In our thinking it is, in the end, counter productive to win everything and leave the opponent with nothing. That would just plant seeds for more problems in the future.

    Russians do not think like this. In their thinking it’s all zero-sum game. If you have gained something, its at their expense. Win-win is for weaklings. In their mind everything is about power. For them, power is the ultimate money. It buys everything and everybody and justifies anything. This thinking is deeply ingrained in their culture, and especially the culture of the Russian elite.

    The sad truth is, IMO, that as long as the west will keep on trying to find win-win solution to a situation in which the opponent is playing a zero-sum game, we will see Russia continuing its aggressions. Each concession by the west will convince Russia that the west is weak, indecisive and they can push further and gain more with little or no risk to themselves. That will make them cross the line at some point. IMO that seems inevitable. The only questions are: when, where, and how much damage will they do before that.

    From this viewpoint, Finland and Sweden are extremely naïve in their stubborn belief that staying outside of the NATO helps in keeping the situation relatively stable and peaceful. The reality is, that the gray areas are fuel for the Russian aggression. Without them, Russia would find it very hard to play the game it is currently playing. In other words, the gray areas are a source of instability, not the other way around.

    To stabilize the situation, both Finland and Sweden should join NATO and NATO should accept Ukraine and Georgia to become members ASAP.

    Unfortunately, the political realities make this scenario almost unimaginable. Because of that, it is Russia who’s calling the shots. And it will continue to do so as long as the west keeps on pretending it can manage the situation by talking and believes it can, at some point, find a win-win solution which would be enough for Russia to stop demanding for more.

    1. Rav

      I do not think you are spreading doom and gloom. To people knowing this type of mindset it’s just one of probable scenarios. People and politicians in Western Europe do not comprehend the ego and the risks this man/people are willing to take. I am pretty sure he will demolish half of Ukraine just to prof the point. Russia is not a democracy there will not be some kind of change or retribution after 4 years. He is beyond law. Although I think it is posturing right now it is also a real threat especially for Ukraine. Little bit less for Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The risk will also get higher if the economic/military situation in Russia deteriorate strongly or comically will get very good.
      With this guy it’s just strength and money and right now Germany is the key.

  2. mark

    Interesting article! As an American living in Finland, I have been aware of the long -running NATO membership question and have respected the debate around it. I can see how the debate would have to be awakened in earnest if the scenario you lay out in the end plays out…. however I wonder if the general public in the debate would actually lean towards non-NATO membership, if the viewpoint is “well NATO is not committing forces to the east, therefore they are useless” instead of “in order for us to get the military support that will maintain deterrence we will need to be in NATO”

  3. säkkelton

    You certainly are in to something with your persuasive thoughts, thank you!
    Still, what about the fear of orange revolutions?
    The threat to loose control in Ukraine was, after all, behind the events in 2014 and onwards. Later on to be confronted in Mother Russia as well.
    That would mean that he is probably bluffing, and now, after almost 8 frustrating years, actively raising the stakes, it seems even more plausible.

    From Putin’s point of view, as EMK previously put it, zero-sum game really seems to be the game he is playing. Otherwise, it is kind of hard to understand, why he is prepared to risk most everything. With his current demands he, to wit, makes it easier to question his conquests ´deja accompli´.
    I guess he counts on the contemporary, well rooted feeling of shame and self-criticism in the west. We can’t let Russia just loose, can we?

    1. Mark

      Hmm, that last sentence, is it the often misspelled “lose” as in “they lost the war” … Or is it actually “loose” as in “let them loose and allow them to do anything they want”? It kind of works both ways in that sentence haha.

  4. Silver Dart

    “Finland and Sweden would be left vulnerable being both unable to buy high-end capabilities from NATO-members as well as not having the protection offered by being part of the alliance. ”

    Or, as EU countries, Finland and Sweden could also leverage on UE mutual defense, that also exists (!) (aka article 42-7 of Lisbon treaty)

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