Fifteen European states have supported Germany’s initiative to launch discussions with Russia on a new arms control agreement.
«Europe's security is in danger», German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Die Welt newspaper in an interview published on November 25. «As difficult as ties to Russia may currently be, we need more dialogue, not less».
Fifteen other members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - have since joined Steinmeier's initiative: France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Portugal.
The group plans to discuss the issue on the sidelines of a December 8-9 ministerial level OSCE meeting in Hamburg. Germany is holding the rotating presidency of the organization.
Mr. Steinmeier first floated the idea of an arms control agreement with Moscow in August amid rising tensions between Russia and NATO. He has also slammed NATO for «saber-rattling and war cries» and provocative military activities in the proximity of Russia’s borders.
Russia withdrew from the original Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (the CFE treaty) in 2015. Signed in 1990 by NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the agreement set ceilings for the level of conventional arms systems signatories were allowed to deploy and established verification and confidence-building measures.
The treaty had long been undermined by NATO expansion, leading to imbalance of forces. The alliance has accepted 12 Eastern European countries since 1999 with Montenegro invited to join. In 1999, signatories agreed an adapted version, but this was never ratified because NATO insisted Russia had to withdraw all its troops from former Soviet territories such as Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria as a precondition for the ratification. Although Russia had withdrawn almost all its troops, there remained some insignificant contingents but the alliance stubbornly sought to pursue its line.
According to the Adapted CFE, the quota for the number of forces practically did not change. The agreed limits for NATO exceeded three times the ones established for Russia. The flanking zone limitations for the Russian Federation were not reconsidered. The three Baltic States refused to join the treaty when they became NATO members. The adapted version of the treaty did not address the problem of NATO’s superiority in naval forces. A number of NATO countries have essentially breached its requirements, periodically refusing to provide information to the Russian side or allow inspections. The alliance has stepped up provocative activities near Russia’s borders.
NATO failed to take into account Russia’s concern over ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans. This policy implemented by NATO actually finished off conventional arms control in Europe. In 2007, Moscow suspended its participation in the treaty to finally withdraw in 2015.
As a result, the OSCE Vienna Document and the Treaty on Open Skies are the only mechanisms left in place but they are too limited in application to curb the rising tensions.
The goal of creating a «Greater Europe» stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok seemed to be achievable some years ago. Now it has become a far-fetched dream. A quarter of century has passed since the Soviet Union’s collapse. The Russia-West dialogue has failed to translate into some kind of strategic relationship.
It’s important to note that the initiative to relaunch the negotiation process does not belong to Germany. The West has rejected Russia’s proposal to discuss a new European Security Treaty. The Russia-proposed draft document was published in 2009. In March 2015, Russia expressed its readiness for negotiations concerning a new agreement regarding the control of conventional weapons in Europe. It never rejected the idea of launching talks to address the problem.
New security arrangements should take into consideration the realities of the fast changing world, including new technologies. Any arrangement should cover long range conventional strike capabilities, the weapons based on new physical principles, tactical nuclear weapons, the NATO’s naval and conventional superiority, the bloc’s further expansion and a host of other problems. No deal is possible without an agreement of NATO’s BMD program.
The process should not be limited to weapons systems only. The confidence-building and security measures (CBSMs) contained in the Vienna Document should be further developed to reduce the risk of a new armed conflict sparked as a result of an accident – something NATO has refused to do so far.
A new agreement should address the security agenda in a broader sense. The debate is long overdue. The problem should not boil down to bilateral Russia-NATO relationship. It should eventually feed into a broader conversation on the overall European security system based on a new architecture.
Europe is facing a host of security challenges. Launching a meaningful discussion with Russia is logical step to take. Russia and the West have plenty of possibilities for cooperation besides arms control and military activities in Europe. The possible areas of cooperation include the fight against terrorism, especially the Islamic State group, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, the Arctic, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and countering piracy to name a few. Respect for mutual concerns and interests is a prerequisite for success.
With all the differences dividing Russia (the Soviet Union) and the West at the height of the Cold War, those days diplomacy worked well to prevent the worst. It can be done now. The significant support for the proposal launched by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier provides a serious opportunity to turn the tide. This chance should not be missed.