With Zapad Over, Is It Time for Conventional Arms Control in Europe?


Perhaps like no other exercise since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s recently concluded Zapad (West) exercise was of serious concern to NATO’s easternmost members. It provided ample opportunity for pundits to engage in hysteria about Russian intentions.

No seasoned NATO official expected the exercise to be the not-so-secret cover for a Russian invasion of the Baltic States – which could easily become the overture to World War III. Rather, the real problem with Zapad is that it underscored once more the precarious state of security in Europe.

Since Crimea, much has been written about NATO’s unpreparedness for potential Russian aggression and the need for a deterrence-by-denial approach to prevent deliberate escalation by Moscow. But an essential ingredient of NATO defense policy remains strangely absent from the debate―how to address insecurity by means of arms control.

Arms control on its own cannot prevent deliberate escalation. If a nation decides to go to war, it will go to war regardless of what arms control arrangement is in place. This is why NATO has, quite correctly, put the onus on deterrence, assurance, and defense in its initial response to the Ukraine crisis. But arms control, and in particular transparency and crisis communication channels, can help to limit the risk of unintended escalation. This may take the form of inadvertent escalation through general misunderstanding of the other party’s intention, or of accidental escalation through lower-grade military incidents that gradually become more severe.

Because NATO also decided at its 2016 Warsaw Summit to remain open to dialogue with Russia, and since Germany, in particular, has only recently made a renewed push for conventional arms control in Europe, it makes sense to ask whether a novel conventional arms control arrangement could provide for more security in addition to NATO’s deterrence and assurance approach. At the same time, to add a much-needed reality check, we must ask whether the political level of U.S.-Russian relations allows for a new approach.

The Historical Dimension

Historically, arms control in the European context has always been driven by efforts to make the status quo more stable and reduce the likelihood of arms races and security dilemmas. For much of the Cold War, NATO went to great lengths to fine-tune a concept of flexible response to prevent and, if necessary, manage deliberate Soviet aggression in the face of the Warsaw Pact’s conventional military superiority in Central Europe.

But flexible response was not enough, and from 1973 onwards, allies augmented that approach with a fruitless effort to conduct direct talks on conventional forces with Moscow and its satellites. NATO’s goal at the so-called Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks, which dragged on for 16 years without any palatable result, was to address the potentially dangerous instability that resulted from the East’s overwhelming conventional power.

Regardless of the mutual strategic benefits of arms control, the success or failure of these initiatives turned on politics – a function of the ups and downs of the wider bilateral U.S.-Soviet relationship that drove the Cold War. When Mikhail Gorbachev decided to open his country and to seek financial relief for the Soviet Union’s defense-burdened economy, arms control became one way for Russians and Americans to find common ground. After negotiating and signing the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, suddenly conventional arms control became a possibility as well.

The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, signed in 1990, led to massive reductions in heavy military equipment of both blocs at a time when NATO’s concern about the East’s superiority was already fading away. After an unsuccessful attempt to modernize CFE at the end of the 1990s, European security went slowly south. Again, the deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship directly affected European arms control. The growing number of U.S.-led military interventions with no or questionable legal justifications, the U.S. abrogation of the bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and subsequent U.S. plans to deploy missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, and Washington’s unsuccessful push in 2008 to include Georgia and Ukraine in the NATO alliance led to a growing perception of insecurity in Moscow. Russia suspended its participation in CFE in 2007, occupied parts of Georgia the following year, and started a very costly modernization of its eroding armed forces. In 2014, the Kremlin broke either the letter or the spirit of almost all European arms control agreements when it illegally occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

NATO’s Threat Perceptions

Fast forward to 2017. We should ask ourselves what today’s military considerations of insecurity are and whether conventional arms control could again help to remedy some of our worst fears―ideally by simultaneously addressing some of Moscow’s concerns as well (because yes, a good deal is one that creates a win-win situation).

NATO allies are to varying degrees concerned with two broad objectives: preventing and perhaps managing deliberate Russian escalation at NATO’s eastern flank (mainly vis-à-vis the Baltic States) as well as preventing inadvertent and/or accidental escalation.

NATO’s concerns about deliberate Russian escalation stem from the combination of Russia’s conventional superiority in the wider Baltic Region, its ambitious modernization of its armed forces, and its repeated use of force against its neighbors (e.g. Georgia and Ukraine). From a purely military point of view, NATO is worried about the proven Russian ability to mobilize and deploy significantly more forces than the alliance can, in less time and supported by greater enabling capabilities at the regional level.

Such concerns highlight broader concerns about the security situation vis-à-vis Russia. These include the regional balance of power, which favors Russia, the strategic depth of the Russian Western Military District, which allows for much faster reinforcement of conventional forces than on NATO’s territory, Russia’s well-streamlined reinforcement logistics, its growing arsenal of precision-guided conventional weapons, its up-to-date C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and A2/AD (Anti-Access and Area Denial) capabilities around the Baltic rim, and, last but not least, the extent of Russian military exercises, as underscored by Zapad 2017. These realities raise the concern of deliberate escalation in a limited fashion, which could present NATO with the fait accompli of a limited land grab, perhaps in one of the Baltic States.

NATO has addressed this problem first and foremost through a very restrained deterrence-by-punishment approach in the wider Baltic region. Allies decided to deploy four multinational battalions (~4,000 troops) under the label of an Enhanced Forward Presence in the three Baltic States and Poland while simultaneously strengthening NATO’s language on deterrence, including nuclear deterrence. The message to Russia is: An attack on one is an attack on all, and NATO has multiple escalation options at its disposal.

The Promise of Conventional Arms Control

There are good reasons to believe that NATO’s current approach is not sufficient to deter deliberate Russian escalation, given the immense disparity between NATO and Russian forces in the Baltic region. But the fact is that NATO has been unable to find common ground to deploy more forces. In the absence of a more robust military mandate and because the security situation in the region is still considered unstable, NATO leaders could try a new conventional arms control initiative.

Again, arms control is not a panacea, particularly not to prevent deliberate escalation. But it can certainly contribute to a more stable status quo. From NATO’s perspective, stability would mean limiting, and perhaps reducing, Russia’s conventional capabilities in the wider Baltic region, which would include parts of Russia’s vast Western Military District. Such limitations would not even necessarily have to address all of Russia’s modern capabilities and missions. Instead, NATO could focus on what Moscow would need to achieve, sustain, and defend a potential land grab in the Baltic region. The brunt of such a mission would rest on battle tanks, theater artillery, attack helicopters, and fighter jets, though of course modern enablers would also be needed. Russia would need to move boots on the ground to hold ground, which is where conventional arms control can be helpful.

The original CFE counting rules still apply to exactly that kind of heavy conventional weaponry. To build on those rules, a new system of regional reciprocal limitations could address heavy weaponry in the wider Baltic Region, or at least provide a mechanism to prevent the additional deployment of combat forces. In fact, a CFE-like regional framework could cushion some of NATO’s concerns about instability in Europe.

Russia’s Threat Perceptions

The problem is that Russia will ask, what’s in it for us? Why should Russia agree to regional constraints while the global balance of power, despite all the Russian military modernization, is still massively in favor of the United States?

Moscow is concerned about U.S. military dominance at three levels that are intertwined like a Russian Matryoshka doll. At the global level, Russia faces a global expeditionary power, the United States, which provides extended deterrence guarantees to allies through unmatched military capabilities. At the regional level, around the wider Baltic area, Russia is concerned about Washington’s ability to project said power into Russia using NATO as a springboard. Moscow’s decision to violate the INF Treaty by developing and perhaps fielding INF-range systems can be interpreted as a counterweight to U.S. conventional strike capabilities. Finally, at the sub-regional level, one of the narrower concerns that you only hear in private discussions with Russians is about Moscow’s ability to defend the exclave of Kaliningrad against NATO in a crisis.

Taken together, Russia’s concern is very much existential. On the other hand, from Moscow’s perspective (and perhaps quite correctly), Washington is primarily concerned not with survival, but rather with the security of its ‘proxies’ in Europe and, thus, the wider U.S. alliance architecture (though at least some doubts remain about whether the Trump administration is truly concerned about the latter).

This makes U.S.-Russian security concerns highly asymmetrical, which does not bode well for conventional arms control in Europe. Add to that the current tensions between Moscow and Washington, which are not conducive to any form of concessions, and one can easily imagine fruitless talks without any concrete outcome, akin to the dreadful MBFR experience.

An Alternative to Limitations: Confidence-Building Measures

With conventional arms control forced to wait in the wings, its “little brother,” confidence-and-security-building measures), may be able to provide more predictability. Indeed, mitigating NATO’s concern about inadvertent or accidental escalation will require transparency and well-functioning communication channels. Deterrence doesn’t address the risk of unintended escalation.

NATO’s problem with Zapad and the Russian practice of conducting snap exercises on very short notice is that unannounced sudden troop movements could trigger misinterpretations of Russian intent. This problem could, in part, be mitigated if Moscow provided timely notification of planned drills and allowed NATO to sufficiently observe ongoing maneuvers.

In fact, the Vienna Document of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stipulates advance notice for drills that exceed 9,000 troops and requires that observers be permitted to attend exercises beyond the threshold of 13,000 personnel. Unfortunately, the Kremlin has found ways to work around these confidence-and-security-building measures. Moscow circumvents the rules by simply splitting its large-scale maneuvers, of which Zapad is certainly one, into a number of smaller exercises―no notifications, no observers. Russia only invited a limited number of observers to Zapad and has routinely blocked efforts to update the Vienna accord in the OSCE.

But the risk of triggering inadvertent escalation is not borne by Moscow alone. NATO’s current deterrence approach in the Baltic region also creates dangers of inadvertent escalation that could be addressed through improved communication.

Imagine that Moscow were to suddenly concentrate troops at the Latvian border without any explanation. NATO, knowing that its forces in the region could not halt a Russian advance, would as a matter of necessity consider sending in its second wave of reinforcement, the so-called “Spearhead Force,” at best a force of 13,000 personnel. But what if Moscow were to misinterpret NATO’s defensive measures as an opening for war? If NATO wants to enhance crisis stability, it has to communicate effectively with Moscow through permanently available crisis communication channels.

With regards to accidental escalation, Russia’s continued military brinkmanship over the Baltic Sea makes that risk an almost daily concern for NATO forces in the region, and NATO has started to play that game as well. A number of concrete suggestions have been made to prevent military incidents―ranging from modernizing and multilateralizing bilateral U.S.-Russian risk-reduction agreements to augmenting the NATO-Russia Council with a permanent crisis clearing mechanism.

Indeed, from NATO’s perspective, fully implemented and perhaps updated confidence-and-security-building measures and crisis communications channels could contribute significantly to predictability and help reduce the risk of inadvertent or accidental escalation. But again, we have to take into account the Russian perspective. Moscow is deliberately manipulating risk in order to appear unpredictable and dangerous. Unpredictability is one of Moscow’s preferred tools to deal with one of its core political concerns: preventing NATO from further enlarging eastwards (not to mention Moscow’s second tool of preventing that outcome, i.e., military intervention in the post-Soviet space). Russia knows that an alliance concerned with its own security will hardly have the stomach to pursue a successful open-door policy towards the former Soviet republics.

The Broader Picture: A European Approach?

Widening the aperture, it becomes clear that Russia’s military concern about the global capabilities of the United States, combined with its political concern about losing its traditional sphere of influence, makes it tough for Moscow to see the cooperative security gains from arms control and confidence-and-security-building measures.

Absent any significant changes to those concerns, that basically leaves two future scenarios for European security. First, it could get worse before it gets better. There may be an accidental crisis that is only stopped at the very last second, or a return to arms racing on the European continent. Second, we might see a sudden change in leadership and/or doctrine on one side, akin to Gorbachev’s advent in the 1980s, that makes arms control suddenly possible.

While no responsible Western politician would hope for the first possibility, we should not place our bets on the second. Hegemonic power projection is simply too integral a part of the national DNA of U.S. and Russian policymakers.

But what about a third scenario in which Europeans finally make themselves more militarily independent from an increasingly unpredictable and obstructive security patron on the other side of the Atlantic? Could arms control come about between Russia and the other European states, rather than having to wait for U.S. or Russian politics to change?

That leads us back to Berlin’s latest push for arms control in Europe and the future role Germany does or doesn’t want to play in European security. Europe’s most economically powerful nation still seems reluctant to raise its defense spending level to two percent of GDP to modernize its aging armed forces. But even if Berlin hopes that it is possible to take the lead on European security without raising defense spending levels, absent a significant German military contribution, Europe cannot hope to be a continental power that can seriously check Russia or provide assurance to the EU’s easternmost members. Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that there is only one thing he respects: power. Talk of arms control from Berlin under such conditions rings hollow (and not only in Moscow).

Germany’s reluctance shows that the structural conditions for conventional arms control in Europe are not yet in place. Even though confidence-building measures in particular would at least theoretically limit the risk of unintended escalation, even that mild form of arms control is not in the cards right now. As long as Europe remains a heterogeneous entity and not a serious security actor, Moscow and Washington will continue to determine the fate of security, and thus of arms control, in Europe.


Ulrich Kühn (PhD) is a Nonresident Scholar with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C. He previously worked for the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy Hamburg and the German Federal Foreign Office. This essay builds on a larger upcoming study of the author for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on security in the Baltic region, to be published at the end of 2017.

Image: kremlin.ru