European Security and Strategic Stability

Neither Europe, nor the world as a whole will be left without arms control for the simple reason that it meets the interests of all countries involved in the process. Arms control boosts security and predictability while cutting defense spending. Moreover, there is years-long positive experience and a huge layer of functional legacy in this sphere, writes Sergei Oznobishchev, speaker at the first session of the Valdai Club’s European Conference held in Vienna on May 21. 

Regardless of the efforts being made to shatter the arms control system or truncate its separate segments, the objective interests of the parties to it will again and again get back to work on its revival. Hence the relevance of carrying out negotiations, including on the most diverse aspects of European security.

It will be recalled that the shared understanding of strategic stability, the only one coordinated between Moscow and Washington in 1990, emphasizes the importance of talks.1 This logic suggests that the interruption of the negotiating process we are witnessing today is in itself a powerful destabilizing and destructive factor. A security system cannot be stable or long-term if its structural elements – agreements resulting from painstaking work of coordination – are periodically knocked out by fiat.

Some cases in point of vital documents being exposed to arbitrary treatment is the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and Washington’s course for wrecking the INF Treaty. As regards the latter, the existing compliance-related mutual grievances could be accommodated in no time, given a normal dialogue and political will on both sides.

The United States and Russia Leave the INF Treaty. Possible Deployment of Advanced Missile Systems
Following the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of Russia's participation in the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty).

Right now, it is vitally important to restore stability of the negotiating process itself, seeking not only to revive dialogue but also to upgrade it in such a way as to make its sudden interruption by one of the sides all but impossible. This alone will be a crucial contribution to maintaining and consolidating strategic stability.

An additional destabilizing factor when it comes to the European security system is Russia’s persisting concerns over the real capabilities of the European Missile Defense System, including as a potential attack weapon. It could turn out, however, that the real threats are not so great after all, if the parties succeeded in starting a dialogue on this matter.

During the past quarter-century, no attempt was made to alleviate Moscow’s concern over NATO’s eastern expansion towards Russian borders. This policy remains one of the most sensitive destabilizing factors concerning European security. At the same time, NATO has recently been practicing a certain amount of restraint in the process of deploying its military structures.

In military-political relations between countries we should always distinguish between declarations and real developments expressed in actual military preparations. No one, of course, will go as far as starting a nuclear war, but it has become acceptable lately to speculate on the possibility of limited nuclear weapons employment.

Yet, there are no guarantees whatsoever that it is possible to control a nuclear escalation. A very pertinent comment on this matter, with regard to Europe, was contributed by former US Defense Secretary William Perry: “We have today in the Baltics a situation where neither side wants a conflict, but could all too easily blunder into one. And one that could escalate to use of tactical nuclear weapons; if that does happen, no one – I say no one – can control further escalation in the nuclear field. In spite of all the theories on escalation, no one really knows how it works or whether it would work."2

Thus, the logic of a “worst-case scenario” for European security shows that in Europe conventional weapons are an intrinsic part of a likely escalation “chain” that can go as far as a nuclear conflict and form an element of the strategic stability formula. The likelihood of this scenario underscores the vital need for disengaging the parties’ conventional potentials at a much greater distance than the one that resulted from NATO’s deployment of four tactical battalion groups near the Russian border.

It cannot be ruled out that some positive developments in this regard will lead to agreements on establishing specialized “rarified zones,” belts of lower military activity and weapon concentrations along the Russia-NATO border. The Russian expert community has made relevant proposals. Reviving the Conventional Arms Control in Europe process could contribute to the attainment of this goal as well. I think that its ideology inherited from the CFE negotiations is still alive.

Today there is much anxiety on both sides over the lowering of the nuclear threshold as expressed in military doctrines, something that obviously undermines strategic stability. The latest US Nuclear Posture Review contains an unequivocal Europe-related indication of this. The elucidation of certain points related to nuclear weapons and their employment available in Russian doctrinal documents may come in handy as well. If we want to live in a more stable and secure Europe, reciprocal clarifications and detalization of certain general but very important declarations is of vital importance and should become widespread practice. To a certain extent, the format of the Vienna Military Doctrine Seminar could be used to promote this goal, but it may be expanded by inviting more members of the expert community.

The emergence of new technical capabilities and weapon systems is a new destabilizing factor and challenge, which is yet to be properly appreciated. Moreover, this will further reduce the time set aside for resuscitating the European arms limitation and reduction system.

Today, arms control is in crisis, increasingly becoming a means of manipulation. Although there are still a number of international organizations concerned about this problem, the questions about their effectiveness are of the asked. In 2018, the Donald Trump‘s administration announced that it could withdraw from the 1987 INF Treaty. This could signify the beginning of a new cold war between the United States, Russia and China, along with another round of the arms race.

There is a chance to improve the extremely unfavorable European security situation by bringing the political will back to dialogue. This should combine with efforts to recreate Russia-West cooperation by using the small steps tactics that was already mentioned at the latest Russian-US meeting in Sochi. One could also suggest an approach based on the two-speed road principle. In this context, some of the most urgent problems can be singled out to be addressed as a matter of priority and in a manner involving a minimum of preconditions and correlations. In the meantime, the remaining issues will be worked on comprehensively and in depth according to the usual procedure.

Going back to collective diplomacy principles, I would like to mention Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, where he called for a return to the “common European home” idea. Relaunching this process as something like a “new version” of the Helsinki Conference will offer an important common goal to all those who seek to restore an atmosphere of cooperation and trust in Europe but so far are going about it in their own separate ways.

1. Gosudarstvenny visit Presidenta SSSR M.S. Gorbacheva v Soyedinennye Shtaty Ameriki. 30 maya-4iyulya 1990. Dokumenty i materialy (USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s State Visit to the United States of America. May 3-June 4, 1990. Documents and Materials), Moscow, Political Literature Publishers, 1990, p. 198.

2. Address by W. Perry // Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe. Ed by Dr. V. Kantor. Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe. 2018. P 55.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.