Conventional arms control in the 21st century

Conventional arms control in the 21st century

The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) was signed in Paris on Nov. 19, 1990. Signed between the 16 members of NATO and six members of the Warsaw Pact, the treaty aimed to eliminate force disparities between the two military camps and to establish an effective system of verification. 

The CFE Treaty has an interesting history. Although it was signed between 22 countries, it was ratified by 30 countries because of the developments in the international system due to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and later, of the Soviet Union. The treaty entered into force on July 17, 1992. 

Some of the former Soviet republics have formed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 1994. Many members of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO. As the conditions in political geography changed due to all these developments, the CFE Treaty was revised in 1999 and signed in Istanbul. That latest version is now referred to as the Adapted CFE Treaty. 

The course of events and the changes in the international scene, however, developed further. Today, NATO has 29 members. In March 2015, Russia halted its participation in the CFE Treaty. Under the circumstances, many question the de facto validity of the CFE Treaty today. The task in front of the international community, therefore, is how to make conventional arms control fit for the 21st century. Is there a need for it? What should the architecture of the new conventional arms control look like?

These questions were addressed last week at a Conference in Berlin, organized by the European Leadership Network and facilitated by the German Federal Foreign Office. As this week marks the beginning of two important military exercises, namely the Zapad-2017 organized by Russia, with the participation of Belarus and the Kaliningrad oblast on the one hand, and Aurora-17 by Sweden on the other, there is a growing concern about the risk of rapid militarization and a new arms race in Europe. 

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the military confrontation in eastern Ukraine prove the CFE regime has serious deficiencies. The post-Cold War environment focused mostly on stabilization and counter-terrorist operations out of the area. Today, however, the protracted conflicts in the former Soviet space as well as the rapid deterioration of stability in the Black Sea region draw the attention of security analysts to Europe again. The conference in Berlin, therefore, was a good opportunity to review the current state of affairs.

Arms control is an instrument for conflict prevention. The philosophy in the 1990s necessitated an integral complementariness between arms control and confidence and security building measures. Today, this understanding has to be re-introduced. The lack of trust between Russia and the West is causing a serious erosion in Europe’s security. Even if there is a need for more effective arms control, trust needs to be regained by means of new confidence building measures.

It is hard to disagree that the CFE Treaty is irrelevant under the current circumstances. Military technology has developed and new precision guided weapons have been introduced. Therefore, the concept of so-called Treaty Limited Equipment (TLE) has to be reconsidered and will probably need to be redefined.

Experts also agree there is a need for developing new concepts in the field of security to work in the prevailing contemporary circumstances. Transparency and verification methods have to be enhanced. All these efforts have to take into consideration that the geopolitical situation is also different today than from the 1990s.

In the loose multi-polar setting of today’s international system, one finds it difficult to identify whether a step-by-step and bottom-up approach or a top-down approach would be a better solution to stop the rapid deterioration of Europe’s security environment. There is a stronger inclination to reintroduce a legally binding umbrella agreement because all the parties involved and interested in the security of Europe have shared interests in achieving security and stability as well as in resolving the protracted conflicts. 

As this week witnesses two major military exercises in Europe, one cannot help but ask whether a freeze on large scale military exercises could become the beginning of a new confidence building process in Europe.