China has been the largest buyer of Russian arms and technology for years, followed by India. The conflict in South China Sea (SCS) over islands and military infrastructure Beijing has put in place there is bringing together the military allies Russia and China on firmer footing than ever before in years after the Cold War.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims. China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stoking tension in the region through its military patrols, and of taking sides in the dispute.
In July, an arbitration panel in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a ruling invalidating China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, a result that Beijing angrily rejected as null and void. Russia has been a strong backer of China’s stance on the arbitration case, which was brought by the Philippines.
In a way as to either provoke USA or belittle its regional neighbors that share the South China Sea coastal zones, China and Russia, have launched eight days of naval drills in the South China Sea — the first time any country has done exercises there since Beijing’s claims to the sea were rejected two months ago – against the backdrop of regional territorial disputes. The drills – in a sign of growing cooperation between the armed forces of China and Russia, scheduled from Sept 12 through Sept. 19 in the SCS – take place off southern China’s Guangdong Province — not near Beijing’s nine-dash line, which was rejected by the international tribune court in The Hague in July in a case by the Philippines over Beijing’s maritime claims. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have opposed China’s claims over the South China Sea.
Russian news outlets said 18 ships, 21 aircraft and more than 250 marines from both sides would take part in the drills. The ships include destroyers, cruisers, a Russian battleship, amphibious warfare ships and supply vessels. However, Xinhua said the Russian component would include three surface ships, two supply ships, two helicopters, 96 marines, and amphibious armoured equipment. China’s navy would contribute 10 ships, including destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, supply vessels and submarines, along with 11 fixed-wing aircraft, eight helicopters, 160 marines and amphibious armour, it said.
Chinese news agency Xinhua said the Russian ships arrived early on September 12 in the Guangdong province port of Zhanjiang, and the exercises would be held off the Guangdong coast, apparently in waters that are not in dispute. According to reports the Xinhua News Agency, a Russian fleet arrived in Zhanjiang, Guangdong, China on for the start of the eight-day China-Russia “Joint Sea 2016” naval exercise, a series of war games which will take place in the South China Sea.
The naval drills, announced in July, feature navy surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters Marine Corps and amphibious armored equipment from both navy operations, Chinese navy representative Liang Yang said. Exercises will include defense, rescue, anti-submarine operations and island seizing, Liang said. In July, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson said the operation “does not target any third party.” They will involve surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters, Marine Corps and amphibious armoured equipment from both navies, he said in a statement on Sept 11. “Compared with previous joint drills, these exercises are deeper and more extensive in terms of organisation, tasks and command.” The ministry did not say exactly where the drills would be held in the South China Sea, the site of heated territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Joint Chinese-Russian drills have become increasingly common in recent years. This week’s exercises are the fifth between the two navies since 2012. The China-Russia joint naval exercises have been conducted four previous times annually. Last year, the drill was conducted in the Mediterranean in May, and in the Peter the Great Gulf, the waters off the Clerk Cape and the Sea of Japan in August. Earlier, China’s Ministry of Defense announced in July the drill would be conducted in the South China Sea. “The drill will consolidate and develop the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership and enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly deal with maritime security threats.” While the term “island-seizing” seems to suggest otherwise, China argues that the “Joint Sea” drill is a “routine drill” and “does not target any third party.”
This is the first time these drills have been conducted in the South China Sea. While China argues that the drills are routine, Russian comments indicate that Chinese-Russian bilateral exercises are designed to offset the US-led regional security structure. “We believe that the main goal of pooling our effort is to shape a collective regional security system,” said Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in late 2014. “We also expressed concern over US attempts to strengthen its military and political clout in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his support to Beijing’s stand this month at the G20 summit in Hangzhou. The exercises come at a time of heightened tension in the contested waters after a UN-backed tribunal ruled in July that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea and criticised its environmental destruction there. China rejected the ruling and refused to participate in the case. The “Joint Sea-2016” war games will include exercises on “seizing and controlling” islands and shoals, according to Chinese navy spokesman Liang Yang.
While China says the drills do not envision specific enemies or target any third parties, their location in the South China Sea has drawn criticism. During a visit to China last month, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Scott Swift, said: “There are other places those exercises could have been conducted.” He described them as part of a series of actions “that are not increasing the stability within the region”. Xinhua rejected such sentiments in a commentary on Monday, saying those viewing the exercises as threatening were “either ill-informed … or misled by their prejudice about China and Russia”. This year’s drill will focus on anti-submarine warfare and island-seizing operations, explained Chinese Navy Spokesman Liang Yang. “The marine corps will carry out live-fire drills, sea crossing and island landing operations, and island defense and offense exercises.”
The Chinese and Russian militaries, in their largest joint operations drill yet, are training to seize islands and hunt down submarines in the South China Sea. The Russian Navy sent three surface ships, two supply ships, two helicopters, 96 Marines and several amphibious armored units to take part in the drills. Ten People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels, including destroyers, frigates, landing ships, supply ships, and submarines will participate. The Chinese will also deploy 11 fixed-wing aircraft, eight helicopters, amphibious armored units, and 160 Marines. Most of the Chinese units are associated with the Nanhai (South China Sea) Fleet.
China insisted that it had sovereignty over the South China Sea, defying an international tribunal ruling that its claims to a vast swathe of the waters had no legal basis. China was “the first to have discovered, named, and explored and exploited” the islands of the South China Sea islands and their waters, and had “continuously, peacefully and effectively exercised sovereignty and jurisdiction over them”, Beijing said in a white paper on settling disputes with the Philippines, which brought the case in The Hague.
Beijing’s claims to the waters — extending almost to the coasts of other littoral states — are enshrined in a “nine-dash line” that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s. China had “never ceased carrying out activities such as patrolling and law enforcement, resources development and scientific survey” on the islands and in “relevant waters”. The white paper says that China wants to settle the disputes “on the basis of respecting historical facts”. But the document was in direct contradiction to the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on Tuesday, which said that “there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources”.
The UN-backed tribunal also said that any “historic rights” to resources in the waters of the South China Sea were “extinguished” when China signed up to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As such, it said there was “no legal basis” for China to claim historic rights to resources within the nine-dash line. China had no possible entitlement to areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, it added. China boycotted the PCA proceedings, saying it had no jurisdiction to rule on the issues, and has mounted a huge diplomatic and publicity drive to try to discredit the tribunal and its decision.
The joint drills, obviously targeting China’s sea neighbors, are likely to stir up tensions. China’s vast claim to the region was decimated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July. China rejected the ruling and has since been conducting regular live-fire military drills in disputed waters and stepping up its military presence in an effort to reassert its dominance over desired territories.
China has attacked Western media reports critical of the drill. “Such reports are misleading and intended to convince readers that China and Russia have enough motive to make the drill an occasion to flex military muscles against potential enemies,” said a Xinhua editorial. “It may be true that growing military ties between Russia and China have irritated someone’s sensitive nerves, but it is worth noting that excessive geopolitical interpretation of a specific military drill is neither necessary nor justified,” explained the editorial, noting that there is no need for “fear mongering.”
The joint Chinese-Russian drill coincides with the start of Valiant Shield 2016, a US drill in the Western Asia-Pacific. These three countries would like to send out clear signals to each other and confuse the world over.
The joint military drills are significant for China as not only do they demonstrate the extent of Russia’s support, they also suggest Moscow isn’t concerned about other claimant states. That could have implications for Russian foreign policy. Like Washington, Moscow has also embarked on an ‘Asia pivot.’ Since 2010, Moscow has fostered close economic and defense partnerships with various Southeast Asian nations and initially adopted a neutral stance on the South China Sea issue.
The Game-changing Fallibility of BMD Systems: Lessons from the Middle East and South Asia
As the Middle East’s major powers recalculate their defence and foreign policies following last month’s missile strikes on Saudi oilfields, there have emerged some telling lessons with regard to the changing nature of modern warfare. While these lessons are perhaps painfully obvious to the likes of Saudi Arabia who have directly been on the receiving end of these attacks, they are also evident in the near deafening introspection being undertaken by the region’s other power brokers, the United States and Israel as well. This has been made clear by the fact that even after a month since the attacks took place, there remains a definite and near ironic aspect of shock and awe to what was otherwise a quick, covert and precision strike on a highly valuable target.
What’s more, the fact that the strike took place despite the presence of one of the world’s most sophisticated missile defense systems, presents a telling example of how the technological balance in cruise missile development has shifted more in favor of offensive strikes at the expense of a once reliable defensive capability. As such, the ease and precision with which one of the world’s most closely guarded facilities were struck, shows that based on the widespread availability of current technologies, it is perhaps more reliable to count on a missile system’s offensive strike capabilities. Consequently, the opportunity cost of investing in and developing expensive missile defense shields based on this scenario becomes tremendously higher.
These lessons provide valuable strategic import to another nearby region which is also brimming with tensions amongst two extremely well equipped and militarily capable states. This refers to the South Asian region, where both India and Pakistan also seem headed towards a dangerous escalation of hostilities. As a result, both countries would do well to consider the lessons emanating from the above-mentioned Saudi experience. For instance, like Saudi Arabia, India has also been on a military spending spree over the last decade, importing some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems from across the world. Its massive economic growth has given it license to pursue a robust military modernization program that is keenly focused on enhancing its power projection capabilities. However, again like Saudi Arabia, India’s military also remains untested and risks being termed another ‘glitter force’ that is more concerned with procuring arms as a matter of prestige as opposed to operational efficacy. This for instance was clear during India’s aerial engagement with Pakistani Air Force jets in March, during which a sophisticated Israeli origin missile fired by India’s air defenses downed one of India’s own Russian made Mi-17 helicopters. Such lack of operational readiness and blind faith in untested systems is evident in both the Saudi and Indian experience highlighted above.
Specifically, regarding the US made Patriot batteries used by the Saudis and the Israeli made Spyder missiles used by India, the above incidents have shown that the efficacy and reliability of these systems in the real-time conflicts of today is quite patchy at best. If anything, any form of over-reliance on these systems runs the risk of a grave miscalculation which in effect is multiplied by the regional complexities of both their respective security environments. These miscalculations are already on display in the increasingly volatile Middle East, as the Western backed and Saudi led military alliance is just realizing. With the vulnerability of such missile defense systems now increasingly evident, there has also arguably been an element of deterrence that has been further reinforced. Consequently, the path to de-escalation appears a lot more rational than one which may escalate towards all-out war. The case of South Asia too was similar where the aerial engagement between nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan, also ultimately reinforced the latter’s conventional deterrent while exposing gaps in the former’s much touted aerial defenses.
Yet, considering that the case of South Asia remains infinitely more precarious due to the presence of two adversarial nuclear weapons states, the above described developments pose additional yet considerably more important implications when applied to the region’s nuclear deterrence framework. In effect, they erode the belief that ballistic missile defense systems can serve as the backbone to what many a state would consider a winnable nuclear war. These primarily comprise of Nuclear Weapons States such as the US and India which in the recent past have increasingly relied on concepts such as counterforce, pre-emption and precision as key themes within their official military thinking. All under the premise that Missile defense shields offer a reliable and credible defense against an adversary’s pre-emptive or secondary nuclear strikes as part of their strategic calculus. India’s much vaunted purchase of the Russian made S-400 system presents a clear example of such a strategy.
In contrast however, the fallibility and faltering reliability of such air defence systems shows the immense dangers of adopting such an approach within scenarios that have the potential of irreversibly altering life on earth as we know it. Considering how peace and stability in the South Asian region is precariously balanced between Pakistan and India’s nuclear deterrence framework, the unreliability and increasing fallibility of missile defense systems thus warrant a serious re-evaluation of the strategic calculus of both nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan.
Protracted Asymmetric Geopolitical Conflict
Each of us has his own definition of “geo-history”, and mine is the interface of the “geopolitical” and the “world-historical.”
We are marked by two anniversaries, that of the start of WW II in 1939 and its end in 1945. Fascism was a unique regime of terror, with a strategy of unbridled ‘exterminism’ and therefore constituted a unique political evil in world history. However, outside of its type of regime, strategy and tactics, was its ‘grand strategic’ goal also unique or was it not? Is there a resemblance or homology between, on the one hand, the doctrine of Ein Reich, the telos of world domination, a Thousand Year Reich, and the military moves of Germany and its Axis partners in the run-up to WWII, and on the other, that of a unipolar world order and global military expansionism; of open-ended unipolar global leadership? Is there a continuity or homology between on the one hand, the wartime US Grand Area planning for the postwar world (the documents of which were unearthed by Noam Chomsky), and the present Indo-Pacific strategy and on the other hand, the notorious earlier search for Lebensraum? Is the Indo-Pacific strategy an insistence on “maritime Lebensraum”?
If the answer is yes, and the two paradigms can be superimposed upon each other, then history provides only one answer: the united front and its extension, a global grand alliance. But a united front and grand alliance with whom, to what end?
Politics is combat. International politics is international combat. By the “suicide” of the Soviet Union (that post-mortem verdict was Fidel Castro’s), the Empire was unbound and it is now threatening world peace and the future of humanity itself. Every single arms control agreement (bar one) has been unilaterally renounced, but before that came the rollback of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements with the destruction of former Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO. Now the empire seeks to dominate the entire global theatre in all possible spheres. This should not come as a shock or surprise. It is almost a law of physics (perhaps it should be called ‘geophysics’) that once unwisely unbound, the Empire would uncoil, spread, expand, and seek to dominate—in short, that the Empire would seek to behave as an empire.
The geohistorical question facing humanity today is how to constrain the Empire, but not return to the old delusions of how to do so. The Empire must be initially counterbalanced and then constrained– bound– permanently, until, as in the case of the Roman Empire, there is a benign change of beliefs (in this case, political) from within its own society, its own citizenry and not as before, a change in its external posture which proves in the long geo-historical term, to have been merely ephemeral, conjunctural, even tactical.
The Empire’s strategy as concerns Russia is quite simple to understand. It is a re-run of the strategy that enabled them to prevail in the Cold War. It is to provoke Russia into an arms race and exceed prudent spending limits, cause economic hardship and generate enough discontent that the citizenry, especially the young, will agitate, thereby causing psychological exhaustion and catalyzing peaceful democratic “regime change”, bringing into office a capitulationist/collaborationist administration sooner or later, in the wake of the end of President Putin’s term. Meanwhile, what is being played out in Hong Kong foreshadows the geohistorical endgame envisaged by the Empire for China and Eurasia as a whole.
By its global offensive, imperialism has potentially overstretched itself morally, ethically and politically. Not since Vietnam has imperialism had a potential target profile which is so large and so exposed. The targeting of Iran when that country has not violated the JCPOA can be turned into a massive indictment on the twin grounds of reason and logic as well as of natural justice. Similarly, the targeting of Venezuela can be exposed for the absurdity that someone who did not even run for Presidential office should be recognized as the legitimate President of a country. So also, the unilateral withdrawal from arms control agreements can be exposed for the danger this poses to humanity.
One of the most important principles of asymmetric political resistance is the identification of the most important strategic real estate as the moral high ground. The moral or moral-ethical high ground is the seizure and occupation of that terrain of argument which is recognized and recognizable as more rational, reasonable and of broader benefit to humanity, assuring “the greatest good of the greatest number” according to universal values and norms and not merely national or regional values and norms.
The main axial routes and themes of the political struggle should be Peace and Sovereignty. Firstly, these are themes that have a universal or near-universal resonance. Secondly, they allow the critic to fight for and occupy the moral high ground because the West has only a toehold on the moral high ground in all these cases. Thirdly, they are also the main achievements of humanity that are threatened by the Western offensive. Fourthly, they are themes that are likely to have resonance among peoples the world over, albeit with greater or lesser emphasis in different areas of the globe.
This great struggle cannot be waged with the guiding ideology solely of or governed solely by “State Interest” or “National Interest.” It can only be waged by the recovery of the spirit of “internationalism” that was present in the entire Soviet period. It is little appreciated that Stalin, the father of ‘Socialism in One Country,’ and political leader of the Great Patriotic War waged an international campaign against fascism. Even in periods of isolation and siege, Stalin’s perspectival approach was never one of a cultural or civilizational preoccupation. The struggle for Peace and Sovereignty, Against Interventionism and Global War, requires the building of global opinion and a global movement.
A contemporary Realist would immediately grasp the opportunity which has opened up in post-Cold War history, namely of compensating at least partially for the loss of those territories and Russia’s Western buffer, the rollback of Yalta and Potsdam and the USSR’s wartime gains and the advance of the NATO borders up to Russia, by the geostrategic gains on the Eastern front through the renewal of partnership with China. Obviously, this has been recognized and acted upon but it has yet to be optimized by the kind of diverse yet solid strategic relationships that the USA has through NATO in the West, and Japan and many other states in other parts of the world. A Realist would recommend a re-visiting, retrieval and revision of Article 1 of the 30 Treaty signed by Stalin and Mao, which recognizes that the security of Russia and China are indivisible and that any aggression against one will be regarded as aggression against the other and responded to accordingly.
There is a contradiction between the Western project of the encirclement of Russia and the intellectual response to that encirclement. One of the reasons for that contradiction is the fact that academies and think tanks have been shaped and formed by and sometimes in the decades of ‘peaceful coexistence’ and later ‘détente’ with the West and are almost structurally unprepared for the change in the global geopolitical-geostrategic ‘ecology’ as it were. These institutions were formed or reshaped by party edict as adjuncts of the tasks of negotiation with the West and the competition (which became enmity for a period) with China. They are structurally oriented towards the West; their institutional faces are turned westwards. Their entire spirit and ethos are those of partnership with the West and suspicion of China stemming from the 1960s and 1970s.
Institutions need to reflect the tasks of the new times, those of facing the West as an adversary in a protracted Cold War encompassing a global hybrid war; facing encirclement by the West and the global offensive of the West. Perhaps new joint analytical and academic institutions should evolve as intellectual-scientific superstructures of the SCO, BRICS, the Astana process and most importantly the partnership with China. A Russo-Sino joint think-tank or ensemble of think-tanks of Advanced Studies, as an intellectual microcosm or advanced prototype of a strategic alliance (not merely a strategic partnership) seems an imperative need.
The threat to Russia is nothing less than deeply, profoundly existential. If Iran is disaggregated by military action two things will result simultaneously. In a small scale equivalent of the collapse of the USSR and the dawning of the unipolar moment after the Cold War ended, there will be a dramatic shift of the balance of forces within the global Islamic community or ummah, to the Wahhabi/Salafists, just as in return to pre-1979, Western power is projected right back into an arena dangerously proximate to Russia’s ‘soft underbelly’ as the western analysts have always seen it. The intermediate ‘buffer state’ may not always remain so. Any deep damaging of Iran will also have global grand strategic implications of tightening the encirclement of Eurasia and weakening China.
Iran’s capacity for deterrence and if deterrence fails, its capacity for prolonged resistance and the same of Venezuela, will decide the level of resistance far away from Russia’s frontlines. If Afghanistan ended the USSR by bleeding it white, then the most effective Western policy in that theatre was to equip the so-called mujahidin with shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to neutralize Soviet air power. If the USSR had not been so enmeshed in détente as to hold back the SAM-6s from and provide only a minimum supply of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese, then the damage inflicted on the US may have been such that it could not have gone on the offensive in Afghanistan a mere three years after the withdrawal from Saigon. While the US had no compunction in providing shoulder-fired to the Afghan mujahidin, with whom they had nothing in common ideologically, knowing full well that they would cause Soviet casualties especially among pilots, the USSR did have compunctions in providing SAM-6 batteries and a far more generous quantity of SAM-7s to the Vietnamese who were ideological comrades. The Vietnamese used to wryly remark to those of us in the Vietnam solidarity movement in Asia, that had the USSR provided them with the quantity and quality of air defense missiles that it gave the Arab states in the same period, the early 1970s, the Vietnamese would certainly have used them more effectively and with less losses than did the Arab armies.
That is perhaps the best single piece of explanatory evidence as to why the US recovered so fast from the Vietnam defeat while the USSR unilaterally withdrew from the Cold War and collapsed. It was a matter of will, and the consistent clarity of the US that the USSR was the enemy, and the determination to prevail over it. Later, the successor state of the USSR, the Russian state, with the Russian armed forces as its core, was seen as the enemy—even when the Russian administration and leadership may have been seen as a useful quasi-ally, partner and even ‘friend.’ Thus, on the questions of Iran and Venezuela, a contemporary Russian ‘dialectical and historical Realist’ analysis would consider a ‘reverse Brzezinski.’
China appears caught in a contradiction within an irony. The contradiction is that having entered the world capitalist order dominated by the West and become a major player within it, it now finds itself vulnerable to both economic and military threats simply because it proved to be strong enough to be an economic competitor but not strong enough to prevent, deter or prevail over a military build-up triggered by the inherently hierarchical and hegemonistic character of the system it had bought into. The irony is that China had found itself caught in a contradiction because it had forgotten Mao’s theory of contradictions which draws a fundamental distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. China regarded the competition between itself and the West as a purely economic and therefore non-antagonistic contradiction, but the world system being not only an economic system but one of power, China’s peaceful rise was perceived by the West not as a ‘friendly’ or non-antagonistic contradiction but precisely as an antagonistic one, to be responded to not merely by economic means but also by military means, namely the biggest build-up of an armada in recent history through the Indo-Pacific strategy.
The irony is a dual one, because it was China that first cautioned the USSR about the idealistic and utopian nature of the project of “peaceful economic competition” with the West, but later pursued it with greater zeal and success than the USSR ever did or could. In the 1960s and 1970s, China had established a methodology of identifying the contradictions in the world at any given period and went on to hierarchize those contradictions. The listing would naturally shift over time and became irrationally anti-Soviet at one point; an irrationality that lasted a long period. However, the methodology of discerning, identifying and ranking contradictions was a realistic one, because it alerted China or anyone who used the dialectical framework, to the reality of antagonism, of hostility, in the world arena.
If the world’s foremost military power which disposes of the greatest destructive force known by history, regards one or more countries as adversaries, indeed as The Other(s), and backs up this policy perspective with the actual offensive disposition and concentration of men and material over time, then basic survival instinct should dictate that the states designated and treated as adversaries should seek to combine their military and non-military strengths to countervail and deter such a power which regards them with hostility and as threats. There are several such countries but only two such great powers, and these are Russia and China, in whichever order. Those who opine that Russia can slip out of this siege by living down a perception of a special relationship with China and associating as closely or even more closely with other great or big powers, seem to forget that Western moves against Russia’s interests preceded its renewed hostility to China.
The bottom line is that in any objective, dialectical and historical Realist analysis of Russia’s core interests, no relationship with Europe can be a substitute or even on par with a partnership with China. Not all vectors are equal, and some are certainly more equal than others.
Since neither Russia nor China can countervail the US-led Western alliance on its own, a closer equation is needed between the two than between either Russia or China and any other big power or powers. No other big power, however friendly, is the target of unremitting and adversarial Western action, and therefore will not take the same risks for either Russia or China as each of them should logically do for each other, since they both stand threatened and targeted. A Concert of Big Powers cannot be a substitute for a defensive United Front or coalition of states, of which the Russia-China relationship will be the main alliance, consisting of those sovereign states actively threatened in a military-economic sense by the West.
These are the strictly personal views of the author.
From our partner RIAC
Time for a New Approach to Conventional Arms Control?
The return to an outright deterrence relationship between NATO and Russia involves the danger of an arms race and a number of military risks, particularly in the NATO-Russia contact zones. These risks can be contained by means of sub-regional arms control. Approaches of this kind should comprise sub-regional force limitations, limitations of military exercises, transparency and inspection rules for rapid deployment and long-range strike capabilities outside the zone of limitations, as well as a strict verification regime. Measures should be based on existing agreements rather than negotiating a new treaty.
Currently, there is a little scholarly discussion on new initiatives or innovative approaches to conventional arms control (CAC) in Europe. A diligent study by Peter van Ham from the Dutch Clingendael Institute — “Modernizing conventional arms control in the Euro-Atlantic region” — discusses the merits of different approaches. A very critical report by the Swedish FOI Institute — “Conventional Arms Control. A Way Forward or Wishful Thinking?” — , edited by Johan Engvall and Gudrun Persson, focuses more on the question as to why German Social Democrats, in the wake of the 2016 Steinmeier initiative, are focusing so much on CAC than on the issue itself. And finally, in the framework of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, a group of authors from Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, and the US presented a concrete proposal for sub-regional arms control in the Baltic region — “Reducing the Risks of Conventional Deterrence. Arms Control in the NATO-Russia Contact Zones”.
There are many, to some extent, reasonable arguments questioning new efforts for CAC. The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is politically dead, the modernization of the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures 2011 (VD11) is blocked. Why should any new initiative for CAC fly? In a broader sense, it is argued that, with the failure of the INF Treaty, the termination of the Iran nuclear agreement by the US and the uncertain future of the New START Treaty arms control, in general, has become almost unachievable. There is deep mistrust on all sides. Western governments argue that there cannot be business as usual (including arms control) with Russia as long as the Russian government is backing secessionist forces in Eastern Ukraine, while the Russian side is arguing that arms control is blocked by NATO’s ambitions for military superiority.
The Return of Deterrence
What unites most governments in Europe is the conviction that strengthening one’s own military capabilities is more important than cooperative security approaches. We are seeing the return of a mutual deterrence scenario coupled with the progressive erosion of cooperative security policies that were pursued until the early 2000s. To be sure: We never had a pure cooperative security scenario, but rather a hybrid mix of cooperative and deterrence elements. But even this led to an unprecedented reduction of conventional and nuclear weapons in Europe.
Currently, we are experiencing a quick reversal of this positive trend at all levels: We are witnessing the re-emergence of strong threat perceptions that are directly contrary to one another and mutually exclusive. Military exercises on both sides are approaching the levels reached in the Cold War. And we see hardening military postures, states investing more, modernizing and in some cases enlarging their armed forces. Although we have not yet reached a full arms race, we are on the brink of one. In terms of military options, the issue at stake is no longer “large-scale offensive options” of a continental-size in the sense of the preamble of the CFE Treaty, but the perception of emerging options for a surprise attack in the contact regions between NATO and Russia, particularly in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions.
The Risks of Deterrence
Any military deterrence relationship necessarily involves risks and inherently drives escalation. The three most important drivers of escalation are uncertainty, sub-regional conflicts, and the nuclear dimension. Uncertainty and the lack of military transparency are driving the two sides into a security dilemma with inherent worst-case thinking. Sub-regional conflicts — just imagine a re-escalation of hostilities in Ukraine — can be a powerful factor in raising the level of tensions in Europe. And finally, the failure of the INF Treaty will most probably have a destabilizing impact on the deterrence relationship in Europe.
These military risks in a narrower sense are aggravated by two broader global trends: With the rise of China and other emerging powers, we are passing through a period of hegemonic change that is characterized by a maximum of uncertainty and volatility. And we are passing through the two or three and not many more decades that are critical for stopping a global climate disaster. Both lines of risk, the more narrow military one as well as the broader global dimension, make it imperative to avoid a new arms race in Europe (and elsewhere) that would spoil scarce resources and attract the political attention that we urgently need to address global problems.
Options for Conventional Arms Control in Europe
Against this background, there are basically three options of addressing risks ensuing from a deterrence scenario dominated by conventional armed forces. The first is traditional measures of risk reduction, bilateral or multilateral agreements on the avoidance of incidents and accidents, possibly augmented by transparency measures. A good example is the Baltic Sea Project Team. Measures of this kind are considered by most governments, at least in principle. They are urgently needed, but clearly insufficient in view of the present and future risks.
A second option would be a comprehensive, pan-European post-CFE agreement that also involves new military options and types of equipment. The 2016 Steinmeier initiative for reviving arms control in Europe comes closest to this option. Despite discussions in a German-led Like-Minded Group this option seems to be far too ambitious under the current conditions. It would rather fit a cooperative security policy scenario that is beyond reach at the moment.
The third option consists of using arms control instruments for stabilizing the given deterrence relationship focusing on those areas where the danger of destabilization is most imminent, that is the contact zones between NATO and Russia. This option remains within the scope of mainstream deterrence thinking. It requires an approach of sub-regional arms control.
Problems of Sub-regional Arms Control
Sub-regional arms control is disputed by many for three main reasons. Some are afraid of the political singularization of those who would fall under a sub-regional arms control regime contrary to others who would not. Second, some governments are afraid that sub-regional or any kind of arms control would divert attention from necessary defense measures. And finally there is concern that sub-regional arms control might not be feasible in operational terms in the sense that there is always an impact from outside into the zone covered by a sub-regional arms control regime.
However, sub-regional approaches have been considered time and again. The negotiations on Mutual Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR, 1973-1989), the predecessor negotiations of the CFE talks, dealt solely with sub-regional approaches. And Chapter X of the VD11 explicitly addresses “Regional Measures.” If the three arguments quoted above are taken seriously, it is possible to establish valid sub-regional arms control regimes. The three key factors are an arms control zone large enough to dispel singularization fears and to limit properly the sides’ forces in an equal manner; sufficient regulations for armed forces outside the zone; and a thorough transparency and verification regime.
A Model for Sub-regional Arms Control in Europe
The authors of the Risk Study elaborated a model for sub-regional arms control taking the Baltic Contact Zone as an example. This zone would comprise Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Eastern part of Germany covered by the 2 plus 4 Treaty, Belarus, and parts of the Western Military District of Russia. The zone is large enough to dispel fears of singularization as it covers parts of Germany and Russia. And it is also large enough to cover a substantial part of the sides’ forces. The Baltic arms control regime would be equipped with the following main features:
No permanent deployment of additional substantial combat forces would be allowed in the Baltic Contact Zone. This builds on the obligation of NATO in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act to avoid “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in the newly admitted NATO states and the corresponding obligation of Russia in the 1999 CFE Final Act not “to station substantial additional combat forces” in the Kaliningrad and Pskov oblasts. Although there is no shared definition of the term “substantial combat forces,” there is wide-shared agreement that these two obligations are still valid and have not been broken. To make them operational for a sub-regional arms control regime, it would only be necessary to agree on a definition of “substantial combat forces” and to recommit to these obligations. The commitment not to increase combat forces in the contact zone would represent the key element of the sub-regional arms control regime.
In addition, military exercises in the contact zone would be limited in size, frequency, duration and geographical proximity to borders. Such an agreement could be regarded as a measure under Chapter X of the VD11.
As a complementary measure, rapid deployment and long-range strike capabilities deployed beyond the contact zone should be subject to a notification and observation regime.
All measures agreed would be subject to sufficiently strict transparency and verification regime that could also be established in the frame of the VD11. Certainly, additional quota for inspections and evaluation visits would become necessary.
Is Sub-regional Arms Control in Europe Possible?
Such a regime would have two important advantages: It would address the real risks, namely sub-regional offensive options, and it would build on the adaptation of existing agreements, the VD11, the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the CFE Final Act, rather than negotiating a completely new treaty. A sub-regional arms control regime of this kind is modest in the sense that it remains within the framework of a mutual deterrence relationship. However, it is bold in that it would introduce effective steps for stabilizing this relationship.
Is such an approach to conventional arms control in Europe feasible under the current conditions? Certainly not, if we continue to exchange almost ritualized mutual accusations. And it will become possible only when we recognize that extraordinary circumstances require special measures.
It will certainly not be possible if talks on conventional arms control are conducted predominantly at expert levels. These issues must be dealt with at the higher political levels, including heads of state and government, and ideally embedded in a broader approach of pragmatic cooperation.
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