Tensions between the West and Russia since 2014 have created a tense military balance focused on Europe. There is an increasing armed activity that climbs up in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. These activities take forms such as deployment of troops, large-scale exercises, and close contact at common sea areas and borders. Although direct attack is not seen as a realistic scenario for both parties, current trends increase the risks of misunderstandings, dangerous accidents and uncontrolled escalation of tension. Although the existing communication channels have reduced the likelihood of undesirable results to date, the level of interaction between the parties is low.
Traditionally, the dispatch and management of tension-boosting threats is handled through trust-and security-building measures, as well as through weapons control tools. These are created to provide some degree of predictability to confrontations, to provide greater stability between intense political tensions. However, in the last two decades, a serious resolution of arms control mechanisms has been observed at the regional and global level.
This model even prevented the Ukraine conflict, which has its roots in the abolition of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Agreement of America and NATO’s reluctance to approve the Conventional Forces (CFE) Agreement in Europe and the Adaptation Agreement of this agreement. Due to the perceived blocking policy of the West, Russia gradually withdrew from the second document after 2007 and also changed its previous positive attitude towards military security.
The process of building a stack of weapons since 2014 has been accompanied by discussions about the renewal of the Vienna document, which systematized confidence building measures, difficulties in the implementation of the Open Skies Treaty and a general sense of hopelessness within the arms control community.
The Treaty of Russian-American Mid-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), which ended on August 2, 2019, was the last element of the old set of institutions that fell from value. The future of the New Strategic Weapons Reduction Treaty, which remains the last solid document on the limitation of nuclear forces, is still pending.
In the midst of these developments, several high-level politicians encouraged the re-stability in Europe through the revitalization of treaty-based restrictions in the military field. For example, in 2016, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for “Restarting arms control as a tried and tested tool for risk reduction, transparency and confidence in Europe”.
Subsequently, his successor Sigmar Gabriel called for “preventing the damage of proven agreements”. He then suggested: “We must do everything we can to protect and develop these contracts and, if necessary, show the courage to return to a new path, for example, the traditional weapon control system”.
Calls for greater predictability in the face of deep divisions in Europe are definitely commendable. Thanks to these calls, arms control has re-entered the international agenda (primarily through the OSCE Structural Dialogue). However, it is not enough to try to protect the mechanisms and even the principles negotiated in the past for the success of the military restrictions.
It is important to reflect on major changes that make the straightforward application of old records less promising and require the redesign of the very basic principles of gun control dogmas.
Russia did not receive enough security guarantees from the West in the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, the level of mobility of the Russian military force and even the degree of unpredictability in the deployment became a compensation for the gap between NATO and conventional forces.
At the same time, it was a logical way to triangulate the combination of a large region, a relatively small population and a reduction in military spending. The drastic structural reforms implemented after 2008 and the large-scale instant exercises carried out by Moscow since 2013 have led to the establishment of new principles that have turned Russia into a more effective military force.
The desire to achieve more mobility also paved the way for NATO to decide to revive two powers related to logistics and transatlantic communication. These developments raised mutual concerns about the unpredictability of the other party in potential crises in Russia and the West.
These criteria may not be fully applied to new doctrinal priorities. Today’s armies associate threats over time rather than geography, quality rather than quantity, and integrated networks, not specific weapon types. The size of the armies decreased, but the percentage of units with high readiness increased.
Therefore, applying advanced military systems carries the risk of miscalculations and misperceptions. It is not the real potential of technologically superior skills that have the greatest destabilizing effect, but the uncertainties about untested tools and applications.
For example, the strategic trilogy concept that featured during the Cold War (including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine missiles and heavy bombers) opposed the traditional split between the Land, Navy and Air Force. Today, it is important to think equally creatively about reducing complexity while maintaining the validity of any potential limitation in the military field on the one hand.
This does not necessarily mean that they will avoid any commitment. However, the current political transformations undermine European actors in an effort to organize military positions, making possible arrangements more fragile.
However, there is a qualitative difference between the current situations. At that time, concerns about Asia led to changes in regime design, these are very important for the fate of Asia today. Given the ongoing trends in power transition, Europe’s prospect of isolation from external influences can be expected to decrease further. In terms of strategic stability, efforts to reinstate weapon constraints will be defined by the transition from a two-factor balance between Russia and the United States to a multilateral equation where China, as well as India and some other states, have a greater role.
This assessment shows that many of the premises developed for arms control in the second half of the 20th century were no longer valid. It is very important to adapt to the features that define modern agile forces to promote meaningful institutions that provide greater predictability and increased control. This requires the ability to regulate dynamic positions, qualitative criteria rather than quantitative criteria, and integration tools rather than only vehicles with striking capacity.
The need to reconsider the basic categories that define the various levels and aspects of military balance is not unimportant. In particular, strategic stability becomes an increasingly reduced concept, with the emergence of new skills that can affect it. Also, there are new ways to harass, force, and overthrow opponents outside of the war, which can disrupt stability. Since the ability to regulate depends on the ability to define regulatory objects, serious conceptual work should be done before possible negotiations on future weapon control.
Finally, global power transitions mean that successful arms control in Europe requires greater sensitivity to developments elsewhere. Regional actors must either find ways to minimize the wider reflections of local regulations in an increasingly interconnected world; either try to turn certain mechanisms into global norms; or design regimes to strengthen them, rather than putting pressure on other major areas of operation.