1. Europe under the gun
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 19/12/2018
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* Arms control treaties in Europe is becoming increasingly apparent at the same time and lack of transparency is part of its competitive advantage.
Arms control is an integrated part of Russia’s military strategy: to advance its own military position while weakening that of its enemies. As a result, it is open to arms-control agreements that would entrench its military superiority in eastern Europe and prevent the technological gap between Russia and the West from growing. This logic creates an opportunity for the West.
If Europe engages in rearmament, enhances its militaries’ combat-readiness and capacity to quickly conduct large-scale, sustainable deployments to eastern Europe, it will deprive Russia of its relative military superiority. Moscow will then be willing to talk on arms control.
Europeans still need to agree a common approach on what they want to achieve vis-à-vis Russia, however. Otherwise, they will be divided and public support for rearmament will falter.
During the cold war, arms control and disarmament agreements helped create a stable equilibrium between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, reducing the risk of unwanted confrontation and gradually increasing mutual trust. Today, such deals have a very different role. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty collapsed because Russia withdrew from it. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treatymay soon fall apart. States selectively implement agreements such as the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty, creating distrust and ambiguity. Arms control no longer reduces the risk of military escalation, or increases transparency, between the West and Russia.
Much of what has been said and written under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) emphasises the need to restore trust between the sides and reframe their threat perceptions.
But such efforts seem doomed to fail. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, there has been no way to convince states on NATO’s eastern flank to trust Moscow or regard it as anything but an adversary.
Equally, there is no way to change Russian elites’ perception that they are locked in an everlasting struggle for hegemony with the West. Of course, there was little trust or empathy between NATO and the Soviet Union when they first negotiated many of the arms-control arrangements now in jeopardy. Arms control was never meant to help competitors become friends, but to prevent them from sliding into avoidable wars or escalating arms races beyond what they could reasonably afford.
Any arms-control treaty needs to fit into its signatories’ strategic rationale. This is why current treaties fell out of favour in Moscow; the Kremlin’s strategy is to exert influence through fear and unpredictability. As Russia knows it cannot match the West in any sphere of power other than raw military force, it tries to emphasise the threat it poses to the West in this area, aiming to gain international relevance and deter outside subversion of the Russian government. As long as it has a military advantage on its western flank, Russia will not take arms control seriously. However, the West – particularly Europe – can change Moscow’s calculus through improved deterrence. If it is to restore Russia’s commitment to arms control, the West needs to rearm.
Signed on 9 November 1990, the CFE Treaty was designed to stabilise the military stand-off between the Warsaw Pact and NATO by creating a balance of conventional power. The deal had three main pillars.
- The first of these set a limit on the number of main battle tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, and combat helicopters either side could deploy in Europe, defined as the territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals.
- The second pillar established zones covering multiple states in which the sides would reduce their deployments of both domestic and foreign troops. The deadline for making these force reductions was 1996, with the sides determining the exact quotas for each state within each zone in separate negotiations.
- The treaty included troop limitations for northern, central, and southern Europe, as well as for the Leningrad and North Caucasus military districts.
- This flank rule was meant to prevent local force build-ups intended to intimidate or prepare an invasion of small neighbouring states. Importantly, the treaty only covered the Soviet Union (later Russia) west of the Urals. East of the Urals, Moscow could maintain, deploy, and exercise whatever forces it pleased.
- The third pillar of the treaty was inspection rights designed to verify the parties’ compliance with the treaty. The agreement allocated each signatory state an annual quota of inspections that it could use at military sites (such as barracks and air bases) and storage facilities for decommissioned materiel awaiting disposal or conversion to other purposes. Signatory states were forbidden from blocking inspections so long as the request fell within these quotas.
The first two pillars of the treaty quickly became obsolete: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact led to arms reductions in Europe that far surpassed those envisioned in the CFE Treaty.
Concentrating on expeditionary warfare, NATO countries (including new member states) professionalised their militaries and disbanded their reserve forces in large numbers. Similarly, Russia reduced the size of its land forces after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War to improve the quality, flexibility, and readiness of those that remained. Like their American counterparts, Russian military forces are now highly mobile, capable of deployments across vast distances in a short time. During several manoeuvres in the last decade, Moscow has proved able to deploy 70,000-150,000 troops of all types to even remote parts of Russia. Hence, the number of troops formally deployed to a specific region hardly mattered; they could be quickly reinforced if necessary.
The treaty’s allocation of inspection rights would have provided a valuable confidence-building measure. However, Russia partially suspended its compliance with the treaty in 2007, before fully suspending implementation of it in 2015, following a sharp decline in its relationship with this West. The resulting loss of inspection rights and transparency has been lopsided: although the West lost its right to inspect facilities in Russia, Moscow is still able to gain intelligence from its Collective Security Treaty Organisation allies’ inspections of military sites in Europe.
The Vienna Document
The Vienna Document on Confidence-Building Measures was meant to augment the CFE Treaty. The document – which was conceived in 1990 and revised in 1992, 1994, 1999, and 2011 – has a wider reach than the treaty, as it covers all OSCE members. Although it is not legally binding, the document requires every OSCE member to file an annual report on the structure, size, equipment, and rough disposition of its conventional armed forces, as well as its exercises, deployments, and other military activities that result in the movement of large numbers of troops.
However, there are significant loopholes in the document. Above all, its notification and inspection mechanism does not apply to snap inspections or exercises. Parties to the arrangement are only required to admit inspectors if the total strength of manoeuvring forces exceeds 13,000 troops, 300 tanks, 500 armoured combat vehicles, or 250 pieces of artillery. As with the CFE Treaty, the document applies only to Russia west of the Urals.
Russia uses these loopholes to de facto ignore the Vienna Document. The country formally presents each large-scale exercise west of the Urals as a series of separate smaller initiatives that fall under the threshold for inspections.
However, these purportedly separate exercises constitute the various operational phases of a single wargame:
- a snap inspection, or mobilisation phase; a counter-terrorism exercise, or initiation of conflict through hybrid operations;
- a main strategic manoeuvre (such as the Zapad and Kavkaz exercises);
- a combined arms attack to strike the enemy and gain control of territory;
- parallel manoeuvres (such as those held with the Northern Fleet) practising defensive operations in other theatres to hedge against enemy retaliation;
- a long-range aviation exercise to interdict the enemy’s reinforcements and conduct deep strikes against its rear areas;
- and a strategic missile forces exercise to exercise conflict termination through control of nuclear escalation. By compartmentalising manoeuvres in this way, Russia circumvents the Vienna Document to hold politically destabilising exercises close to other nations’ borders.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu