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Damage limitation for Vienna document

Last week, Nato's secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg launched the idea of reworking the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures, a politically binding commitment to openness and transparency in military matters within an agreed zone of application across the wider Europe--including the entire post-Soviet space.

This appears timely when the role of the military in European security is being emphasized through efforts to increase military spending, modernize and change the deployment patterns of armed forces, and increase the number and scale of military exercises.

From the early 1970s, European countries recognized that their common security would be strengthened through dialogue and engagement, even in times of political disagreement and mutual suspicion. At the end of the Cold War, an integrated framework was put in place to promote cooperation, reduce the importance of military factors in European affairs and bring transparency and predictability to military security across Europe.

The various parts of the integrated European security framework have gradually eroded, to the point where it is now an open question whether the overall structure is achieving its objectives.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has recently noted a growing risk of hostilities between the armed forces of Russia and NATO Allies. Stoltenberg is quoted in the Financial Times as saying that: ‘The time has come to modernise the rules ... with more military presence in Europe, more exercises, increased tensions, incidents or accidents could create misunderstandings that could spiral out of control’.

It should be possible to agree on procedures to reduce any risk that, for example, individual combat aircraft or warships on patrol will engage each other by accident. The technical issues are well understood, and a lot of existing agreements can easily be adapted to current conditions—if there is an interest to do so. Adapting and revising the more fundamental elements of the post-Cold War security order present a much more difficult challenge.

Regular attempts have been made to update the integrated institutions, conventions, high-level declarations and political agreements (most of which were put in place in the early 1990s) intended to safeguard European security. Most recently, the Helsinki +40 process sought to use the 40th anniversary of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act as the catalyst for an inclusive effort to reaffirm the commitment to comprehensive, co-operative, equal and indivisible security in Europe, and to find common approaches to meeting the security challenges of the twenty-first century.

While some positive results can be found in efforts to enhance capacities in addressing transnational threats, and perhaps also to strengthen the human dimension of security—though there the picture is mixed, overall, the Helsinki +40 Process has failed. The process emphasized strengthening capacities to understand, manage and mediate conflicts, and striving for tangible progress towards the settlement of protracted conflicts in a peaceful and negotiated manner. During the process, events in Ukraine evolved from a political crisis to a major armed conflict in the space of a few months.

Many states see the annexation of Crimea by Russia as evidence that a European country with significant military capabilities (that are being systematically modernized) does not share key principles on which security and stability in Europe were based. Russia has emphasized the need for defensive measures to redress what it sees as hostile actions over a long period that unfairly disadvantage Russia and weaken its national security.

In these conditions, pointing to the need to foster military transparency by revitalizing and modernizing European conventional arms control and confidence and security building (CSBM) regimes is logical. However, this part of the Helsinki +40 process has also failed to produce meaningful results.

Russia has terminated its participation in the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Arms Control in Europe (CFE), undermining its usefulness. The 1990 Vienna Document, which codified militarily significant and verifiable CSBMs, was updated three times in the 1990s to keep pace with changes in the European security environment. Since 1999, states have only been able to agree trivial modifications. The 1992 Open Skies Treaty has been difficult to update to allow the use of modern equipment to reflect rapidly evolving technology.

All parts of the interlocking web of agreements that make up the European conventional arms control framework are either frozen or degrading. It seems unlikely that one part of this set of measures can be isolated and modernized if states no longer see European security as a shared responsibility.

At present, there seems little room for optimism that momentum towards common security in Europe can be regained. The 2010 Astana declaration by the Heads of State or Government of OSCE participating States, on the 35th Anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, now looks both hollow and insincere. Future progress would have to be based on more solid ground than a commemorative declaration.

The main priority appears to be damage limitation. Low-level risk reduction measures that help avoid confrontation between aircraft and ships might be ‘low hanging fruit’ that have a value per se and would also be a small step towards restoring a certain level of trust in military-to-military contacts.

From past experience we know that emphasizing military factors cannot produce security either in or for Europe, the most it can do is freeze an unsatisfactory status quo. However, restoring political trust requires a different process, for which there does not appear to be fertile ground at present.


Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.