Rediscovering Diplomacy: An Agenda for Decreasing Tensions between Russia and the West


As NATO moves closer to its July summit in the Polish capital of Warsaw, calls are increasing in Western capitals for NATO to re-engage in dialogue with Russia and seek mutual measures of restraint.

In the foreword to a new report on relations between Russia and the West, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry writes:

Today, dialogue and restraint are needed more than ever since the end of the Cold War. In order to prevent misperceptions, miscalculations, and the potential return of a costly arms race, both Washington and Moscow have to rediscover the instruments of diplomatic dialogue, military-to-military exchanges, and verifiable arms control.

German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier took this sentiment further, criticizing NATO military activity close to Russian borders as “loud saber-rattling and shrill war cries” that risked generating “pretexts to renew an old confrontation.”

These calls for caution come at a time of mounting tensions between NATO and Russia. NATO’s Baltic allies (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and the new conservative government in Poland have been particularly vocal in urging Washington to strengthen military efforts to deter an increasingly aggressive Russia. The latest surge in military maneuvers, dangerously close military encounters, and mutual plans for building up forces in the region already recall some of the most dangerous features of the Cold War. Attendees at the Warsaw Summit are expected to agree on a number of additional military measures aimed at reassuring members of the alliance and deterring Russia. The Russian reactions to it will almost certainly not be friendly.

NATO and Russia appear on the brink of a new arms race. This is why my colleagues and I  have come up with a number of recommendations in the latest report of the Deep Cuts Commission – a group consisting of U.S., Russian, and German security experts.

Particularly for my Western colleagues, one of the key questions is: How should NATO deal with the challenges described above? The answer is straightforward: Allies must (again) realize that deterrence and arms control can go hand in hand. The coming years will bring both challenges and opportunities for dialogue and restraint. A number of security challenges call for urgent attention — and Washington must lead on most of them.

First, NATO and Russia need better conflict management. As the downing of a Russian fighter aircraft over Turkish territory has shown, each side needs to improve communications in the event of a crisis. A joint military incident prevention and communications cell with a direct telephone link between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) could achieve continuous real-time communications between NATO and Russian officers. Such a cell could be linked to or established in parallel with a new European Risk Reduction Center that would connect the Russian General Staff and SHAPE.

Second, allies should aim at increasing the security of all states in the Baltic area (including Russia) by reciprocal and verifiable restraint commitments instead of solely relying on further military buildup. The key could be a subregional arms control regime for the wider Baltic area. It might consist of interlocking elements such as verifiable geographical limitations, transparency measures, and a subregional incident prevention and response mechanism. Through such mechanisms, Russian and NATO officials would regularly meet to discuss issues of pressing concern. Additional mutual military liaison missions— akin to the missions in the former East and West of Germany — could augment  those measures in the states concerned.

Third, re-engagement on nuclear arms control could prevent unintended escalation up to the nuclear level. NATO should rethink its plans for a missile defense system with elements in Romania (already operational) and Poland (under construction). Moscow claims that the system is secretly designed to undermine its strategic deterrent. Washington rejects such accusations as unfounded. Both the United States and NATO have consistently said that a reduction in the threat posed to Europe by Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programs would require NATO to adapt its missile defenses accordingly. Accordingly, the next phase of the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system, planned for deployment in Poland by 2018, should be postponed.

Fourth, postponing the contentious next phase of the missile defense project could as well also help to rescue the disputed INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty. Since 2014, the Obama administration has accused Moscow of being in violation of this important Cold War pact, which limits ground-launched missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Russia has responded with a series of countercharges. Despite efforts to resolve the issue, the crisis lingers on. Since the political-level talks are stuck, Washington and Moscow should seek to establish a technical working group to resolve compliance concerns. Such technical exchanges could supplement ongoing diplomatic dialogue with the aim of resolving issues such as Russian concerns that the U.S.-led missile defense system in Europe could be used for offensive purposes. Another reason for relying on a bilateral technical working group could be that Moscow might not want to convene the Special Verification Commission (SVC), the treaty’s existing body created to deal with such issues. In the SVC, additional treaty members, such as Ukraine, sit at the table – a possible no-go for Moscow.  However, one should be realistic about the prospects of technical talks.  A precondition to any technical engagement is a mutual commitment by both sides to seriously resolve compliance concerns.

Fifth, and closely connected to the INF crisis, are plans in the United States and Russia to modernize their inventories of cruise missiles — weapons often portrayed as uniquely destabilizing. U.S. plans for the new Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) have repeatedly received strong criticism, the latest by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). To achieve arms race stability in the nuclear realm, Washington should forego development of the LRSO. Russia should reciprocate by phasing out its new nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles. In addition, both should address the destabilizing effects of nuclear-armed cruise missile proliferation that go beyond the bilateral relationship. Therefore, Moscow and Washington should work toward reinforcing the restrictions of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multinational treaty limiting the proliferation of missile technology, and by endorsing the inclusion of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial (combat) vehicles in The Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.

Sixth, Washington and Moscow must work toward early discussions on a possible follow-on treaty to the New START agreement. New START expires in 2021. Without it, Russia and the United States would be thrown back to an unstable state of nuclear non-transparency and unpredictability, comparable only to the darkest days of the Cold War. If a follow-on treaty is not possible, for instance because INF remains unresolved and would thus block ratification of any new agreement in the U.S. Senate, both administrations should at least extend New START another five years.

The agenda for the next few years is already packed, and positions on most issues discussed above have hardened over the years. But that does not mean that there is no reason to re-engage on arms control. If decision-makers are not acting carefully, the current crisis might spill over into full-fledged confrontation. As has been shown, cooperative concepts exist, but now need political will and courage. Whether there will be a return to dialogue and restraint will depend to a large degree on the decisions of the upcoming NATO Summit and possible Russian countermeasures, which could further strain the already tense security situation in Europe.


Ulrich Kühn (PhD) is a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (Germany). He coordinates the trilateral U.S.–Russian–German “Deep Cuts Commission” and has been working for the German Federal Foreign Office. Twitter: @UliTKuehn. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Deep Cuts Members, Friends, endorsers of the report or affiliated organizations.