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Death of the CFE Treaty: The need to move arms control back to the centre of security policy

Russia's termination of its participation in the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) is a blow to the integrated system of arms control and confidence- and security-building measures that was put in place to reduce the risk of major armed conflict, even if its practical impact is limited.

When the CFE Treaty was being negotiated, conventional arms control was neither an afterthought, nor an act of altruism; it was at the heart of security policy. The purpose of the CFE Treaty was to remove from states the capability to invade each other, seize territory by force of arms, and then hold it against any counter-attack by opposition forces. The Treaty included highly intrusive verification procedures, to make sure that states really did do what they had promised, and extensive obligations for follow-up verification, monitoring and information exchange, to safeguard against backsliding on commitments made.

Arms control opportunities were conditioned by military realities, and when parties proposed eliminating or capping different kinds of capability, what was possible (and not possible) was evaluated against the yardstick of sufficient defence. However, there was consensus that sufficient defence should be provided, to the extent possible, without building forces that others would see as provocative or disturbing. While remaining parties to the CFE Treaty are bound by its constraints, Russia faces no legal obstacle to building armed forces of any size or shape that it considers appropriate.

Arms control today – how might it enhance European security?

The military environment in Europe in 2015 is very different from the conditions of 1990, but arms control should still be a key instrument—helping states to think about what they need their armed forces to do, and providing a framework for discussing and explaining those choices to others.

Until recently, states have lacked the incentive to restore this role of arms control as an important dimension of security policy. As a result, the principle security institutions in Europe have also underinvested in arms control, and the attempt to update European military confidence- and security-building measures within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) produced only trivial changes in 2011.

NATO has three core tasks: providing collective defence, contributing to crisis management and helping to build cooperative security. Events in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria have raised the level of attention to collective defence and crisis management tasks. However, even if the Chicago Summit in 2012 reiterated NATO’s commitment to arms control, in practice NATO efforts in the field of cooperative security now rest on its partnerships—where the main focus of discussion seems to be how to support collective defence and crisis management.

Within the European Union (EU), preparations for the European Council in December 2013 assessed security and defence posture in light of disturbing geostrategic developments—the intrastate and trans-boundary conflicts to the south and east of the EU.

The decisions taken by EU leaders emphasized two things: first, enhancing military capabilities in EU countries and strengthening Europe’s defence industry; and second, providing training, advice, equipment and resources to partner countries and regional organisations to help them prevent and manage crises by themselves.

Russia, NATO and the EU not on the same page

Frameworks for discussion—such as the CFE Treaty—are being closed down one-by-one. Moreover, rather than making their choices transparent and predictable, states are reinventing ways to conceal or mislead about their true plans and intentions.

Russia has been modernizing its armed forces for a considerable time and has stated that, if resources permit, this process will continue until 2020. NATO leaders have made a defence investment pledge that is likely to increase its collective military resources—even if it does not fully meet its stated goals.

The EU has been developing a Comprehensive Approach to External Conflicts and Crises that should explain how the EU would make more strategically coherent use of the instruments at its disposal. The Comprehensive Approach pays little attention to the military dimension; it largely considers how the EU can use other instruments—development assistance, technical assistance, diplomacy, trade policy, conditional market access, etc.—more effectively.

There is every indication that the processes noted above will take place in isolation from each other. The tendency in Europe is to consolidate relationships among the ‘like-minded’ and strengthen the diverse barriers thrown in front of those who see the world differently. Among other things, changing course will need a decision at the highest levels to move arms control back into the centre of security policy discussions—both nationally and internationally.

An opportunity for consensus?

Redefining security policies will have to be based on a shared understanding that sufficient defence, crisis management and cooperative security are not competing approaches—all are needed in a balanced approach. Investing in the essential elements of sufficient defence does not preclude explaining the logic behind the investments, or serious joint analysis of the potential implications of the choices made.

During 2015, a Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project is working under the Chairmanship of Wolfgang Ischinger, a member of the SIPRI Governing Board. The work of the Panel, which will report to the OSCE Ministerial Council in Belgrade at the end of 2015, is a valuable opportunity to begin the process of finding consensus on European security as a common project. One of the tasks of the panel will be to explore how to reconfirm, refine, reinvigorate and complement elements of cooperative security. Ideally, the Panel will point to the appropriate roles of sufficient defence, crisis management and cooperative security as elements of a balanced security policy. Until the key actors pay equal respect to all three elements, it will be impossible to make serious progress towards restoring stability or building security at a pan-European level.



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