BERLIN – Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, its political and military relations with the West have deteriorated sharply. Russian military redeployments, exercises, and threats have increased insecurity across Europe. NATO has responded by increasing its military presence in Central Europe, fueling fears of encirclement in the Kremlin. To head off the risk of an arms race or military confrontation, both sides must urgently agree to reciprocal measures to limit military capabilities and engage in arms control.
Of course, Russia and NATO have very different ideas about a peaceful and stable European security order. But the same was true during the Cold War, and the two sides made progress by using arms-control instruments to manage their relationship and mitigate the risk of war. Today, however, there is substantial disagreement among NATO members about the preconditions, content, and format of possible arms-control talks with Russia.
Last August, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested that all interested countries in Europe should attempt to “re-launch” arms control in Europe “as a tried and tested means of risk reduction, transparency, and confidence building between Russia and the West.” Such a “structured dialogue,” Steinmeier argued, should move beyond existing agreements.
Six weeks later, the United States robustly rejected that proposal, asserting that, as long as Russia remains on its current course, there is “simply no basis” for new arms-control talks. Instead, the US argues, existing agreements should be revitalized.
Germany’s proposal may well be too ambitious. But America’s proposal is not ambitious enough, and, perhaps more important, it ignores the failure of past attempts to modernize key accords, such as the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and the Open Skies Treaty. A better approach – more feasible than Germany’s and more effective than America’s – would be a push by both countries for Steinmeier-style arms control in just one European region: the Baltic rim.
Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, mistrust between NATO and non-NATO members in the Baltic region has intensified, making that region particularly vulnerable to conflict. NATO now must strike a balance between, on one hand, meaningful reassurance for its own Baltic and Central European members and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia, and, on the other hand, continued cooperation and dialogue with Russia. In this sense, the Baltic Sea region could become a proving ground for political strategies to ease tensions between NATO and Russia.
NATO has always considered deterrence and arms control to be two pillars of a strategy for maintaining European stability. For this reason, re-launching arms control for the Baltic Sea region not need affect existing deterrence measures, including the rotating presence of four NATO battalions in the Baltic states and Poland. Unilateral troop reductions are not where the arms-control negotiation process should begin.
Instead, that process should begin with a structured conversation on topics of concern for regional actors. After all, dialogue is not only a soft policy instrument for handling matters like trade or environmental cooperation; it is also essential to any security policy that looks beyond deterrence. The goal should be confidence-building measures and agreed limits on military capabilities.
Arms control depends on transparency. Fortunately, NATO, as an actor with a defensive conventional-force posture in the Baltic region, has plenty of reason to support transparency. The aggressor gains an advantage from concealment and secrecy – hallmarks of the “hybrid” warfare that the Baltics have feared, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Against this background, NATO should pursue a new arms-control dialogue with the goal of boosting transparency concerning military capabilities relevant for unconventional warfare and providing early warning of destabilizing moves that are not quite acts of war. Given Russia’s conventional superiority in the Baltic region, NATO would not have to worry that such an effort would inadvertently end up weakening the region’s security. It is less clear whether Russia would be interested in such a dialogue, though the Kremlin should want to mitigate the risk of unintended military escalation.
The Deep Cuts Commission, comprising US, German, and Russian arms-control experts, recently made some concrete proposals to address the challenge at hand. For example, the commission recommends arrangements to ensure that any movements and exercises of military units are reported. They also propose measures to avoid unintended military incidents and accidents. And they urge NATO members to take Russia up on its proposal of an agreement on the activation of aircraft transponders, particularly during flights over the Baltic region.
All of these efforts could be buttressed by a dialogue on military strategies among the Baltic states themselves. Such a conversation should be convened by think tanks, ideally in neutral Finland or Sweden, rather than in an official format. Like an arms-control dialogue between NATO and Russia, that effort would provide reassurance, without undermining deterrence.
Efforts to promote sub-regional arms control would also enhance European security in general, complementing efforts to establish the parameters of a new comprehensive security system for Europe. What works in the Baltic region could be adjusted and applied on a larger scale.
Arms control is not an imperative for tranquil times or a reward for reassuring behavior; it is a tool for building – or rebuilding – trust between adversaries. To use it effectively, each side must first gain some insight into the other’s perspective and intentions – an effort in which semi-official talks can play an important role. Because Russian reticence about engaging in a dialogue would point to a desire to rely on military surprises in the future, even a failed dialogue would benefit NATO and the Baltic states. It would certainly be better than nothing.