2. Europe under the gun
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 21/12/2018
France Germany Poland
* Arms control treaties in Europe is becoming increasingly apparent at the same time and lack of transparency is part of its competitive advantage.
THE FOG OF PEACE
From a Western perspective, Russia’s aggressive military posture, intellectual inclination towards pre-emptive and offensive warfare, and repeated miscalculations about European behaviour provide a strong rationale for arms control and confidence-building measures. However, Russia appears to have little desire to make its relationship with the West more predictable.
Moscow’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty and selective implementation of other arms-control agreements – particularly the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty – support its overall goal of gaining influence through fear in its neighbourhood. Reducing transparency, predictability, and confidence forces Russia’s neighbours to worry about what it has in mind, and whether it might engage in military retaliation to perceived slights.
On an operational level, a Russian pre-emptive military strike against a European country would rely on surprise and speed. For instance, all allied military forces in the three Baltic states – including those within the Enhanced Forward Presence – amounts to 19 standing battalions.
Russia has based 40 battalions of combat and combat-support troops close to its border with these countries. Russian troops could win a quick, decisive victory by surprising local forces that had not moved into defensive positions. And, even if these forces did move into defensive positions in time, Russia would still win due to its air superiority, albeit at a higher cost. Yet, if local forces mobilised reserves and NATO pre-deployed additional troops and air, and air-defence forces, Russia could well face defeat.
Nonetheless, Moscow is willing to talk about arms control when it affects NATO’s force posture on the eastern flank in a way that preserves the Russian military advantage there. For example, the Kremlin would be happy to limit the alliance presence in the region.
This would enhance Russian political leverage by dividing NATO territory into a defensible area and what was effectively an indefensible buffer zone. In the event of war, rapidly deployed Russian forces could isolate or circumvent small-scale NATO or local contingents (as happened to Ukrainian forces in Crimea), perhaps even avoiding a firefight.
Equally, Russian diplomats have been receptive to the idea of “zones of limited troop deployments” that some German experts aired in 2016 (as Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then the German foreign minister, attempted to rejuvenate conventional arms control in Europe).
Given the high mobility of modern militaries, such arrangements would benefit the aggressor. Depending on their size, such zones could increase the time it would take the defending side to call in reinforcements. Poor railway connectivity to several parts of the eastern flank (including Baltic countries, Romania, and Bulgaria), a lack of airports through which to deploy troops, and natural obstacles such as the Baltic Sea already prolong this process, giving Russia an operational advantage.
In contrast, Russia has many railways that reach to its western border, and it can deploy its forces to the theatre much more quickly. Were it willing to break its commitments under the German proposal, Moscow would have gained yet another operational advantage.
Russia also has an interest in arms-control agreements that would allow it to hedge against advanced Western, particularly American, technology. At the July 2018 US-Russia summit in Helsinki, Putin pushed for a strategic arms control agreement with Washington. He suggested extending New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), as well as subjecting missile-defence facilities to arms control and banning space-based weapons.
Russia has a similar rationale for extending New START. Despite prioritising the modernisation of its strategic nuclear delivery systems, Moscow needs to find replacements for the ageing R-36M and UR-100 missiles, which carry the bulk of the Russian military’s deployed land-based strategic nuclear warheads.
Russia’s Project 667 Delta-class submarines are also approaching obsolescence, as are its Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers. All these delivery systems and their warheads were designed and built during the Soviet era. It appears that Russia’s new submarines and its submarine-launched, silo-based, and road-mobile missiles will replace equipment that is being phased out without increasing the overall number of weapons.
A UNITED WEST?
One of the biggest problems Europeans face is that they can hardly pursue arms control on their own. In the past, the US was essential to these efforts for two reasons. Firstly, Moscow considered Washington to be its sole important opponent. For the Kremlin, the struggle over the post-cold war order may take place in Europe, but it is a struggle with the US rather than European states.
Eager for concessions from the White House, the Kremlin would only sign an arms-control agreement if the US president also did so. Yet, under Donald Trump, the US is no longer able to use its political authority to unify the West through multiple rounds of disputes and clashes of interest.
Moreover, it is hard to tell where the Trump administration’s interests in arms control lie. Trump refuses to criticise Putin and pushes for a “deal” with Russia – whatever this may entail – while expressing little interest in arms control. Indeed, he wants to expandAmerica’s missile-defence programmes and create a space force. For Europeans, it is unclear how the US president would resolve the inherent contradictions in his policies, and under what circumstances he would trade off one objective for another.
Like the political establishment in Washington, most European states approach arms control from the perspective of a legalistic status quo powers. This reflects their desire to maintain the existing order and resist Russian revisionism. But, aside from signalling intent, their current approach will yield little.
As the debate on NATO enlargement and missile defence unfolds, Europe will remain as vulnerable politically as it is militarily. Russia will skilfully use complex technical arms-control issues to delegitimise European defence, create a pretext for aggressive action, and disrupt political processes in Europe.
For the EU, developing an arms-control agenda is as much about the ongoing psychological and information confrontation with Russia as it is about security measures. But Europeans are still divided about how to deal with Russia on arms control.
Some states – including Austria and Italy – perceive Russia’s desire to maintain influence in the post-Soviet sphere as legitimate and, therefore, sympathise with its declared security concerns. Viewing their interests in Russia primarily through an economic lens, these countries would like to resolve security disputes and resume a normal trade relationship with Russia as soon as possible. Thus, they are prone to endorsing purported compromises that would entrench the Russian military advantage.
Most European states, particularly Germany and France, reject Russia’s revisionist goals in eastern Europe but do not view them as a direct threat. Because most European political leaders are preoccupied with other issues, bureaucratic politics dominates arms-control discussions. They do not want to push for new arms-control policies, fearing that this would begin another daunting domestic policy fight.
In contrast, leaders in states on NATO’s eastern flank such as Poland and Romania, along with non-NATO Sweden and Finland, do see Russia as a direct threat. As a result, they want to improve their security before discussing arms control. The UK, traditionally a voice of reason on arms control, may have deterrence and diplomatic capacity, but it is currently so preoccupied with Brexit that it has no energy for a new arms-control initiative.
- 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