Conventional Arms Control and Building Confidence- and Security-building Measures: Problems and Prospects

Sign over the entrance to the Hofburg Congress Center, the location of many OSCE meetings, in Vienna, Austria. (USOSCE/Colin Peters)

Annual Security Review Conference Working Session III:
“Conventional Arms Control and Building Confidence- and Security-building Measures: Problems and Prospects”

As prepared for delivery by Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Bruce I. Turner
at the Annual Security Review Conference, Vienna
June 29, 2017

As I look around the room today, I see a number of familiar faces, belonging to colleagues with whom I have discussed the difficult situation facing conventional arms control and confidence- and security-building measures – CSBMs. I believe those of you will find my message today to be quite familiar.

Quite apart from a number of other serious political and security developments, we all know conventional arms control in Europe is under stress, some might even say in crisis, due primarily to Russia’s suspension of its implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) in 2007, implementation issues and violations of the Open Skies Treaty (OST), and selective implementation of the Vienna Document. And while not part of the conventional arms control/CSBMs structure, Russia’s violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is a significant factor affecting the broader context of European security.

Arms control and CSBMS don’t exist in a vacuum. The ongoing Structured Dialogue discussions allow us to look beyond our conventional arms control and CSBM commitments and obligations in order to consider security concerns more broadly. Among these concerns, we have noted that the current sense of destabilization is accompanied by significant changes in perception of threat in the European theater. The United States looks forward to more in-depth discussion of these concerns as part of the Structured Dialogue, but I believe it is worth calling attention to some of them here, since they are related to military forces – and underscore the importance of the transparency and confidence provided by full implementation of our conventional arms control and CSBM agreements.

To date, the discussion in the Structured Dialogue has included broad-brush dialogue on the range of threat perceptions, many of which relate to the actions of Russia. The United States, for one, would welcome clarification about Russia’s perception of the current European security environment and how that impacts on its threat perception and developments in the military sphere. We note that Russia is significantly modernizing both its conventional and nuclear arsenals, that it has a substantial inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons, and that it combines those weapons with a troubling doctrine that calls on their potential use to escalate it out of a failing conventional conflict. In addition, Russia has placed a number of divisions closer to the borders of neighboring countries. At a minimum, more transparency about the extent of and intent behind these changes could begin to help reduce the current tensions throughout Europe.

In the absence of such clarifying information, we must view these developments primarily through the prism of Russia’s actions in violation of international norms, most notably the invasion of Crimea and direct involvement in events in eastern Ukraine and its violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. There continue to be personnel and significant amounts of equipment crossing borders that are not accounted for. This is also the case for Russian troops stationed in the Abkhaz and South Ossetia regions of Georgia, and to a certain extent in the Transnistrian region of Moldova.

So what to do? Even though now is not the time for new agreements, it should be possible at a minimum to go back to basics and at least talk. But that means actually engaging and listening, and not talking past each other, something that is hard to accomplish during single-day events where representatives from capitals deliver time-limited prepared interventions. Historically at OSCE in the face of a common challenge, our delegations have met day after day precisely to work through security concerns and identify ways ahead. That type of engagement needs to take place as part of the Structured Dialogue if we are to follow up meaningfully on the issues raised in senior level meetings. Our goal should be first and foremost to stop the current downward spiral; our hope should be eventually to find shared understandings that provide the basis for renewing trust and confidence. The United States wants the Structured Dialogue to be truly a dialogue, and we believe it is important that all participating States join the discussion and share their concerns as we search for ways to increase stability and security.

Earlier this month as part of the Structured Dialogue, Lieutenant General Ray explained how and why U.S. force posture has evolved over the last few years, particularly in response to what we see as aggressive and unpredictable Russian behavior that violates fundamental international norms. I would add that these are not only perceptions, but are backed up by statistical analysis in the paper by the Polish Institute of International Affairs that was distributed by the Polish delegation prior to the June 6 Structured Dialogue meeting. In the face of Russia’s apparent disregard for the rule of law and its flouting of accepted norms of international behavior, the United States and our NATO Allies have enhanced our defense and deterrent capability, including through measures to build the capabilities of our Allies and partners and assure them of the steadfast U.S. commitment to their security. Our European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI, has increased rotational forces in Europe and we are making significant investments in infrastructure to support our day-to-day activities. Our actions have been transparent and predictable; our force posture is proportional and defensive in nature. General Ray was clear in stating that “our efforts demonstrate that we stand by our NATO allies and that we are fully committed to European peace and stability.”

I am deliberately using the word “transparent” to describe these actions, because the United States has a process in place to ensure that our force posture changes are consistent with our arms control and CSBMs obligations and commitments, and that our partners are notified appropriately. Our process accommodates the increased professionalization of armed forces and the advent of smaller military structures, which have in some ways changed the nature of how we measure the military capabilities of a potential adversary, so that it is no longer as simple as counting a discrete set of equipment limited by a given treaty. The OSCE Framework for Arms Control, whose 20th anniversary we commemorated last year, notes the importance of arms control and CSBMs to the OSCE comprehensive and cooperative concept of security. Even when existing conventional arms control and CSBMs do not appear to specifically address new types of activities, for example hybrid warfare techniques and cyber, we should look for ways to use the tools at our disposal to increase confidence throughout Europe, rather than rush to identify a new approach.

Full implementation of existing agreed measures is critical to achieving increased stability and security now, and for providing a basis for potential future action. Not surprisingly, this point has received some attention in the Structured Dialogue, with a number of participating States noting concerns due to the circumvention/rejection of commitments – to include basic foundational OSCE principles and commitments as well as those related to conventional arms control and CSBMs.

Even though our main instruments, the CFE Treaty, Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty, date back to the early 1990’s, they have contributed tangibly to our common security and the European security architecture. We have worked hard to preserve and build on these agreements and commitments, which proved remarkably resilient in managing the changes wrought by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Thanks to these and other agreements and commitments, the potential for military conflict was reduced literally and figuratively through significant arms reductions and increased confidence built through on-site inspections and data exchanges. Perhaps most importantly, the CFE treaty in particular, tangibly demonstrates a set of principles, in parallel with the OSCE’s broader set of Helsinki principles, which represents and underpins a common vision of European security, and confidence in that vision.

Unfortunately, for reasons with which we are all familiar, we now face an environment of increasing distrust and insecurity and loss of vision. What can we do to change this trend? We have a common interest in not allowing the situation to deteriorate further. The problem is how to do that at a time when one participating State is ignoring or actively contravening the very principles and agreements that are at the core of conventional arms control.

Some have argued that we can put aside what has transpired and is still occurring – the violation of basic principles of international behavior as well as arms control – and simply begin again. My government is not prepared to accept a new status quo where European borders have unilaterally been changed by military force, nor are we willing to begin a new arms control discussion on that basis. New trust cannot be built on top of broken trust. This is especially true with respect to foundational principles. That is why, in the view of the United States, current, ongoing circumstances make contemplation of a new arms control agreement in Europe difficult. There is simply no basis for initiating discussions, let alone negotiations, on a new arms control agreement while blatant violations of existing agreements and basic international principles remain. Moreover, Russia has indicated on more than one occasion that it is uninterested in new constraints or additional transparency at this time of growing tensions. So what can we do? Clearly, doing nothing is not an option

At a minimum, we need to make an effort to prevent things from getting worse, and to improve things through modest steps where we can. In this current atmosphere of distrust, it should be possible to focus on ways to improve transparency and predictability in order to reduce the potential for unintended consequences and escalation. Full implementation of existing agreements is a good first step. Modernizing the Vienna Document is a key step to improving transparency and predictability. Russia claims it does not want more military transparency. But if Russian leaders want to be trusted by their neighbors, Russia will need to engage its neighbors on the issues that concern them. And a core issue here is information – or the lack of it – about military forces, deployments, and exercises, which combined provide a sense of intentions. While Vienna Document measures are implemented at different times throughout the year, Russia could engage each week in the FSC on updates to the Vienna Document to work together to rebuild military transparency. Such a productive approach would send an important signal of Russian intentions.

In parallel we can – and, in fact, have begun to – engage in a comprehensive dialogue on our security concerns, to explore all the factors that are currently contributing to a sense of lessening stability and security in Europe. We must work toward finding practical ways to reverse those negative trends. The United States will continue to contribute to that dialogue. Our aim is for intensified dialogue in the fall, as our delegations here in Vienna, augmented as necessary by experts from capitals, begin to explore – and hopefully begin to lessen – the specific threat perceptions that drive our security policy and security concerns.