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: Mil.ru 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.