Arms Control: “Unblessed Bermuda Triangle” or the “New Multipolar World”?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia)
List of speakers

On November 1, 2019, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion on current trends in arms control. Today, in connection with the withdrawal of the United States from the INF Treaty and the rise of China, the question has arisen whether this system would remain in its original form or be replaced by something new. However, according to experts, so far the situation remains quite alarming, and not only for individual, but also for objective reasons.

According to Vladimir Leontiev, Deputy Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the situation in the field of arms control is now extremely difficult and foggy, and there is “alarming degradation” in international security in general. “We have actually blocked a dialogue with the United States on this topic for a long time, he said.  “There has been a principal decision to resume it, but it has not been parlayed into a practical move. Now everything comes down to episodic contacts. ”

Serious uncertainty concerns both the dialogue as a whole and most of the existing arms control agreements. The key INF Treaty has been terminated. START-3 expires in 2021, and the prospects for its extension, according to the speaker, are also unclear. To work out a full-fledged agreement to replace it seems unrealistic. A similar ambiguity reigns, for example, with respect to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Treaty (CTBT), which the US has accepted but not ratified, and with the Open Skies treaty, from which the US may soon withdraw.

“The question arises: why are our American colleagues pursuing such a line? To get rid of any restrictions and to ensure that they have a free hand. Within the framework of the American concept of a “world based on military strength” and the paradigm of competition between great powers, they want to achieve military superiority. However, such concepts have never worked, and they can hardly be considered the basis for a positive long-term relationship. Arms control can only be built on the basis of agreements, and according to the principle of reciprocity. We are trying to build our dialogue, starting from the concerns of the parties. It is built on equality and a mutual consideration of interests,” Leontiev said.

Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, noted in his speech that so far, all bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements have operated on a universal basis, which now has been undermined. The only things that Russia, the USA and China agree on are the rejection of a complete ban on nuclear weapons; with respect to everything else, there are differences.

One of them is concern over the activity of the American defence system, which is expanding and striving to cover the whole world. The other two are related more to a change of context than to specific circumstances. “Another challenge that was first identified by Russian experts is the emergence of new technologies,” the expert said.”There are many types of weapons that are not nuclear, but can cause comparable damage. In addition, the border between strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons is blurring - in the United States; they are combined into one category. Based on this, the build-up of non-strategic nuclear weapons can both prevent a war and lead to further escalation.” The main difference in the positions of Russia and the United States here is that while the Russia seeks a broader approach and includes not only nuclear weapons in the discussion, then the United States wants to reduce properly the number of nuclear warheads.

The latter problem, Weitz noted, is related to the need to take China into account and extend to it the categories developed by Russia and the USA. “The Donald Trump administration accepted the Russian argument that the arms control system should include other countries, but the Chinese side refuses to discuss this. Many experts believe that the main threat to the United States now is not Russia, but China - why, in this case, is it natural to sign an agreement with Russia alone? If the arms control system collapses and China can compete with the United States, this will be a danger to the whole world. Therefore, we need to move from bilateral to multilateral relations,” Weitz concluded.

Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the HSE Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies, agreed with this assessment of the role of China and the difficulties that arise in this connection. “It really is becoming an increasingly important factor, influencing the dialogue, but any attempts to involve China in the process face a large number of problems,” he said. The first of them is related to the restriction and prohibition of intermediate and shorter-range missiles, which have now become the basis of the Chinese arsenal, since they provide a real opportunity to neutralize the superiority of the Western powers.

“Next, we are dealing with the problem of the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean,” Kashin continued, “which affects not only the United States and China, but also a number of other countries. Why should China get involved in this agreement if intermediate and shorter-range missiles are deployed not only in India, Pakistan, North and South Korea, but even in Taiwan? All this raises the question of the end point. If the Chinese make breakthroughs and build up nuclear forces at a faster pace, then soon they may come close to the levels at which dialogue can begin. ”

Timofei Bordachev, the discussion moderator and programme director of the Valdai Club, said that an increase in the number of super-powerful nuclear powers to three allows us to talk about a strategic change in the global balance and the beginning of a multipolar world. On the other hand, as Kashin noted, the current uncertainty of the situation in the field of arms control is connected with the fact that the triangle is unique - it will take some time to find one’s bearings any time soon.