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former IAEA Director-General

Europeans Seek Conventional Arms Talks
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January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

Fifteen countries in Europe are calling for a “relaunch of conventional arms control” negotiations with Russia amid concerns about the deteriorating security situation in their region due to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

In a joint statement Nov. 25, the foreign ministers of the 15 nations said that the existing pillars of the European conventional arms control architecture, namely the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the 2011 Vienna Document, and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, are “crumbling” and “need to be strengthened.” They cited “an urgent need to re-establish strategic stability, restraint, predictability and verifiable transparency and to reduce military risks” and urged “a structured dialogue on conventional arms control in Europe.”

Foreign ministers attending a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe December 8-9, 2016, in Hamburg, Germany, called for “creating an environment conducive to reinvigorating conventional arms control.” (Photo credit: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)The ministers said that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) should be a “central forum for such a dialogue.” The 57-member OSCE works to facilitate a comprehensive approach to European security.

The countries that joined the statement are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. All are OSCE members. 

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier first floated the proposal in a Project Syndicate op-ed on Aug. 26, citing “new and deep rifts” between Russia and Western nations that would likely endure for the near future. Further, he warned of a “new arms race” in Europe due to developing technologies such as offensive cybercapabilities and “new combat scenarios” such as smaller, more mobile fighting units that “are not covered” by existing arms control regimes.

Steinmeier said that a new arms control dialogue should address regional military force ceilings and transparency measures; take into account new military capabilities and strategies, including smaller, mobile units; include new weapons systems, such as drones; permit effective verification in times of crisis; and be applicable where territorial status is disputed. 

Steinmeier conceded that such an undertaking might not succeed “at a time when world order is eroding and relations with Russia are strained” but that “it would be irresponsible not to try.” 

Germany served as chair of the OSCE in 2016. Austria is the chair in 2017, as the position rotates annually. 

The initial U.S. reaction was lukewarm. Bruce Turner, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said that Russia’s ongoing challenge to the core tenets of European security “make contemplation of a new arms control agreement in Europe difficult” in remarks in October at an OSCE conference in Vienna.

Instead, the United States “believes that it makes more sense to work to preserve, strengthen, and modernize our existing agreements, and begin a dialogue on our security concerns” in the OSCE, said Turner, who handles European security, technology, and implementation in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Turner cited as a key U.S. goal modernizing the Vienna Document, a set of politically binding confidence- and security-building measures designed to increase openness and transparency concerning military activities conducted by OSCE members.

Russia has taken a wait-and-see approach. In a speech at the United Nations in October, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the nonproliferation and arms control department in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Steinmeier’s proposal “merits thorough analysis.”

“We will see how Germany’s NATO allies will respond to this initiative,” he added. 

In a Dec. 24 email to Arms Control Today, Ulrich Kühn, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the future of the 15-nation initiative is uncertain, citing the transition to a new administration in the United States, Austria’s assumption of the OSCE chairmanship, and the fact that Steinmeier soon will be leaving his foreign minister post.

At the OSCE ministerial meeting in Hamburg on Dec. 8-9, the 57 participating states issued a statement declaring that they “will work towards creating an environment conducive to reinvigorating conventional arms control” and confidence- and security-building measures in Europe.

Posted: January 11, 2017