Dangerous Illusions Europe Needs an Arms Control Reboot

Europe is on the verge of a new arms race and must take action, argues Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister. To avoid further escalation, leaders must examine current policies and make urgent changes.
A pro-Russian separatist tank in near Luhansk, Ukraine, last year.

Europe's security is under threat. As little as we could have imagined that just a few years ago, this concern is now at the very top of our political agenda. Even before the Ukraine conflict, there was a new sense of confrontation in political blocs that had long been considered overcome. It was no longer perceived as antagonism between communism and capitalism, but as a dispute over the right social order – about freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights – and as a struggle over geopolitical spheres of influence.

With its annexation of Crimea, in violation of international law, Russia has challenged the fundamental principles of Europe's architecture of peace. The conflict structures have changed dramatically, as hybrid forms of confrontation and non-state players gain importance. New technologies also bring new dangers: offensive cyber capabilities, armed drones, robotics, electronic tools of war, laser weapons and standoff missiles. New operational scenarios involving smaller units, greater strike capability and faster mobility, are not covered by the existing transparency and control regimes. We face the threat of a new, dangerous arms race.

Peace in Europe, the legacy of the policy of détente, or easing political strain, is something we took for granted in the last two decades. But now everything is at stake once again. Deep divides have opened up between Russia and the West, and I fear that it will not be easy to close them again, even with the greatest of efforts. One thing is clear, though: Without such efforts, peace in Europe and beyond will be fragile.

No one should have any illusions about the challenges and about what is possible today – especially today, in a world that is coming apart, in the midst of numerous conflicts in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya, where we are not immune to yet another escalation and further setbacks. But this is precisely why I support a reboot of arms control as a proven tool for transparency, risk avoidance and building trust.

The existing regimes for arms control and disarmament have been disintegrating for years.

Since the 1967 Harmel report, the West has depended on a dual strategy of deterrence and détente in its dealings with Russia. NATO acknowledged this dual strategy at the Warsaw summit. We have obtained the necessary military reinsurance, and at the same time we have reinforced our political responsibility for cooperative security in Europe. But deterrence is concrete and visible to everyone. Still, we also need the right amount of cooperation! Otherwise the equilibrium will be lost, false perceptions will arise and there will be little to stop a spiral of escalation.

The existing regimes for arms control and disarmament have been disintegrating for years. The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, known as CFE, which helped to destroy tens of thousands of tanks and heavy weapons in Europe after 1990, hasn't been implemented in Russia in years. Verification mechanisms under the Vienna treaty have come to nothing, and Russia is refusing to participate in a necessary update. The Treaty on Open Skies is also being restricted. The Budapest Memorandum as a security guarantee for Ukraine became obsolete with the annexation of Crimea. The trust that was painstakingly developed over decades has disappeared. At the same time, Russia is calling for a new debate over conventional arms control in Europe. It's high time we take Russia at its word!

In my opinion, a reboot of conventional arms control must cover five areas. We need agreements that define regional upper limits, minimum distances and transparency measures (especially in militarily sensitive regions, such as the Baltic states). They should also account for new military capabilities and strategies (because classic, heavy armies are no longer as relevant today as smaller, mobile units, we should also take transport capacity into account). And they should incorporate new weapons systems (like drones), and permit real verification that is rapidly deployable, flexible and independent in times of crisis (through the OSCE, for example), and are also applicable in areas where territorial status is in dispute. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which Germany chairs this year, is an important dialogue forum for this effort.

Can an undertaking of this nature succeed – in these times of an eroding world order, and with a view to Russia? I admit that this is far from certain. But it would be irresponsible not to make the attempt. Yes, Russia has violated fundamental principles of peace. And yes, these principles – territorial integrity, the freedom to join alliances, acceptance of international law – are non-negotiable for us. At the same time, we must share the common interest of wanting to avoid any further tightening of the spiral of escalation.

We share the view that our world has become more dangerous. Islamist terrorism, bitter conflicts in the Middle East, disintegrating state orders and the refugee crisis endanger us all. Our capacity when it comes to security policy, in the West and in Russia, is stretched to a maximum. No one will win, but everyone will lose, if we exhaust ourselves in a new arms race. By rebooting arms control, we can make a concrete offer of cooperation to all those who wish to bear responsibility for European security. It's time to attempt the impossible.


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