Not Your Father’s Arms Control: Challenges for Stabilizing Military Confrontation in Europe


 The old arms control framework between Russia and the West does not work any more. The erosion of central arms control treaties has led to new tensions between NATO and Moscow. A new approach aimed at reducing tensions in Europe must take into account that central geopolitical coordinates have changed, and that new weapon technologies are rendering the old arms control paradigms obsolete.

Signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty
Teaser Image Caption
Der sowjetische Generalsekretär Mikhail Gorbatschow und der US-Präsident Ronald Reagan unterzeichnen den INF-Vertrag im Weißen Haus, Washington, 8. Dezember 1987.

Tensions between Russia and the West since 2014 have produced intense military balancing centered on Europe. There is a creeping rise of armed activities both in the Baltic and Black sea regions. It takes forms of troop deployments, large-scale drills and close encounters in and over maritime commons. Although both sides exclude direct aggression as a realistic scenario, current trends exacerbate the risks of misperceptions, dangerous incidents and uncontrolled escalation. While existing channels of communication have so far enabled to mitigate unintended consequences, the layer of engagement between parties remains thin.


Traditionally, threats for escalation management are addressed through the instruments of arms control as well as confidence- and security-building measures. They are set to ensure greater stability amidst intense political tensions, infusing a degree of predictability into confrontation. However, the last two decades have seen a dire disintegration of arms control on a regional and global level.

This pattern even preceded the Ukraine conflict, finding its roots in the American abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as well as in NATO’s reluctance to ratify Adapted Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Due to the perceived Western obstructionism, Moscow gradually withdrew from the latter document after 2007 and also revised its former positive attitude towards reassurances in military sphere.

Arms build-ups since 2014 have been accompanied by contestation on the modernization of the Vienna document codifying confidence-building measures, difficulties in the enforcement of Open Skies Treaty and an overall sense of despair within the arms control community.

The Russian-American Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF Treaty) which ceased to exist on August 2, 2019, became the latest casualty of the devaluation of previously established institutions. The future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) which remains the last solid document on limitation of nuclear forces, still hangs in the balance.

Amid these developments, several high-ranking politicians urged to restore European stability through a revival of treaty-based restraints in the military sphere. For example, in 2016 Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then German Minister of Foreign Affairs, called for “the re-launch of arms control in Europe as a tried and tested means of risk-reduction, transparency and confidence-building”.

His successor Sigmar Gabriel later appealed to “prevent the undermining of treaties that have proven their worth”. He further preached: “We must do everything within our power to maintain and jointly develop them – and, if necessary, to dare to embark on a new path, for example, toward conventional arms control”.

Calls for greater predictability in the face of deep divides in Europe are certainly praise-worthy. They put arms control back on the international agenda (primarily, through the OSCE Structured Dialogue). However, in order to succeed in ensuring military restraint today, it is not enough to seek conservation of mechanisms and even principles that have been negotiated in the past.

It is important to reflect on major changes that make a straightforward application of the previous record less promising and demand fresh reimagining of the very foundations of arms control dogmas.

The following text aims to outline transformations in the strategic environment, affecting the prospects for stabilizing military postures in Europe. Specifically, it explores three major trends challenging arms control norms inherited from the 20th century. They include: the revision of military doctrines, the emergence of disruptive innovations and the restructuring of the global landscape.

The assessment does not presume that they make arms control as such obsolete or unachievable. On the contrary, the forthcoming analysis is built upon the premise that it could re-emerge as a valuable tool of risk management, if it is tailored to the evolving security environment.

The author does not seek specific recommendations on how to conclude new treaties or other mechanisms. However, he hopes to contribute to the debate, through examining challenges and potential bottlenecks. It is no relief to find the right solutions to the wrong problems and, so far, we haven’t invested enough in examining the roots of the disease we are trying to cure.

Responding to the rise of agile force

Arms control represents one piece in the toolbox to achieve security for the country. Therefore, any restrictions established by international agreements need to fit into national grand strategies and military doctrines. Meanwhile, both Russia and the West are engaged in a substantial revision of their postures.

Since the end of the Cold War, both have faced substantial pressure to develop smaller and more professionalized armed forces. As military innovations take long time to evolve, doctrinal changes were not easy to implement.

Yet, by the mid-2010s, armed forces in Russia and the West became dominated by concerns regarding their mobility, flexibility and adaptability. Similarly to the infamous “Cult of the Offensive” in advance of the First World War, the current military thinking could be defined by preoccupation with the “Cult of Agility”.

It associates success in conflict with the aptitude to rapidly deploy military forces under unfamiliar conditions, to switch flexibly between concentration and dispersion, to strike with high precision deep into the opponent’s territory as well as to conduct combined operations requiring from various services interoperability on the lowest tactical level.

In the 1990s and 2000s  Russia did not receive security guarantees from the West it deemed sufficient. As a consequence, mobility and even a degree of unpredictability in its deployments became a compensation for the gap in conventional forces with NATO.

It also remained a logical way to triangulate a combination of large territory, relatively small population and reductions in the military expenditures. The aggressive structural reforms after 2008 and large-scale snap exercises conducted by Moscow since 2013 led to the instalment of the new principles, transforming Russia into a more potent military power.

Although Russia's record is impressive, the United States was the one who pioneered the “Cult of Agility”. It served as a remedy for the self-imposed requirement of being able to win two major wars at once. The Rapid Dominance concept, often attributed to the “Rumsfeld Doctrine” and employed in Afghanistan and Iraq, set a standard of fighting with small, but mobile and coordinated forces.

Later, concerns regarding China’s military modernization and the recognition of Russia’s operational successes urged Washington to rethink its requirements for great power rivalry. Thus, the National Defense Strategy of 2018 advanced “dynamic force employment” and “operational unpredictability” as crucial concepts for the future American military.

Moreover, the strive to increase agility proliferated across the West beyond the United States. It found its way into an EU initiative referred to as Military Schengen” and aimed at overcoming bureaucratic and infrastructural barriers for transnational troop movement.

A desire to achieve greater mobility also led to NATO’s decision to restore two commands dealing with logistics and transatlantic communications. These developments increased parallel concerns in Russia and the West regarding the prospects of unpredictable deployments of the other side in potential crises.

The new doctrinal orientations differ substantially from the operational assumptions for arms control during the second half of the 20th century. The latter were grounded on the logic of larger, unwieldy armies, rigidly hierarchical command structures, and gigantic stocks of standardized, but relatively less-sophisticated weapons. Threat used to be proportionate to size and to accumulate enough fighting ability the militaries required days if not weeks of mobilization.

Peacetime troops most often represented a skeleton of the combat force and they needed prolonged beefing-up with reservists before an actual deployment. Therefore, arms control was centered around quantitative restrictions, geographic anchoring and regulation of a limited selection of major weapon systems (the CFE Treaty imposed restrictions on five categories of armaments).

For the new doctrinal priorities, these criteria may not be fully applicable. Today’s militaries associate threats with time rather than geography, with quality not quantity and with integrated networks not specific weapons. The size of the armies decreased, but the percentage of the high-readiness units rose.

Some may claim that such postures are inherently destabilizing, but history proves that similar tools could be accommodated by both assertive and status quo actors. As mentioned in the introduction, this analysis premises that Europe is populated by moderate (even if not fully satisfied) states. To mitigate risks proceeding from new military requirements, they need to develop regulations dealing with characteristics that are relevant for agile forces.

Accounting for technological disruptions

Apart from doctrinal developments, technological transformations also affect arms control. It is not a uniquely recent challenge. The management of rapid technological advancement remains quintessential for curbing arms races and achieving stability since the beginning of the industrial era.

What makes today’s situation particularly problematic is the perception that established measures of military balance are in flux. The scale and scope of concerns are significant in comparison with the period around the 1970s, when the currently disintegrating arms control framework began to crystalize.

Moreover, unlike the nuclear revolution of the 20th century, potential disruptions are attributed to a wide range of systems, including missile defences, anti-satellite, hypersonic and cyber weapons as well as lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Each of them generates heightened expectations regarding the transformational effects on the future of armed confrontation. They are envisaged to reinforce the outlined doctrinal shift by undermining previous concepts of strategic stability, accelerating warfare and extending military struggle into new domains.

History urges vigilance against unfounded hopes and fears associated with ambitions to construct an “absolute weapon”, which will make other means of warfare completely obsolete. Even the introduction of nuclear arms did not dissuade states from investment in traditional capabilities or engagement in military conflicts. Moreover, the previous section already pointed to the primacy of integration of various assets in constructing modern force.

Henceforth, the absorption of technological innovations by the military requires prolonged time, through which mutual adjustments of new weapons and organizational patterns can be  worked-out.

Therefore,  the introduction of advanced military systems is prone to miscalculation and misperception. It is not the actual potential of the technologically superior capabilities but rather uncertainties associated with untested means and practices which cause the greatest destabilizing effect.

This challenge is exaggerated by the human tendency to confidently speculate even before the true transformational nature of innovations is revealed. Following a familiar saying of Donald Rumsfeld, it is the “unknown unknowns” which cause the greatest difficulties.

In terms of arms control, it once again requires a reconsideration of what should be regulated and how. Such revision is often expected at times when there is no solid ground for educated guesses. For example, during the interwar period, the Washington Naval Treaty was negotiated with a primary attention towards major battleships and overall tonnages of fleets.

These efforts overlooked the future central role of aircraft carriers, which were already developed but still at an early stage, as well as forthcoming innovations transforming heavy cruisers into a greater fighting force (so called “pocket battleships”).

The uncertainty infused by current technological developments, however, could not be restricted to an under-appreciation of individual weapons. What becomes even more problematic, is the erosion of previous categories which dominated thinking on military balance.

The combined advancement of high-precision, long range and heavily destructive conventional assets, low-yield nuclear arms and non-kinetic (cyber) striking options is blurring boundaries between strategic and non-strategic domains, combat and deterrence capabilities as well as general-purpose forces and weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, some of the technological innovations (such as cyber) are associated with new forms of coercion short of traditional war fighting. This led to the proliferation of controversial and often conspiratorial concepts such as ‘managed chaos’, ‘hybrid warfare’ or ‘state of unpeace’.

Given the complex and multi-layered nature of military balance, since the Cold War, arms control was built around a compartmentalization of regimes, dealing with various categories of weapons. Although it did not fully preclude package-deals and issue-linkages, this approach restricted the range of questions addressed within specific negotiations.

This made the whole entreprise of arms control manageable. Meanwhile, despite certain voluntarism in drawing these categories, they generally reflected operational realities, which made concluded treaties enforceable.

Technological transformations instigate a search for new lines of demarcation. While the previous record does not necessarily provide specific answers, it could be instructive in demonstrating what kind of intellectual effort is required.

For example, the notion of strategic triad (incorporating intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy-bombers),which rose to prominence during the Cold War, ran against traditional divisions between Land, Naval and Air force. Today, it is important to think equally creatively about reducing complexity while also preserving the relevance of any potential restraints in the military sphere.

Addressing the relative strategic marginalization of Europe

While doctrinal and technological transformations affect the prospects of military restraint not just in the Euro-Atlantic region but globally, political trends are producing additional challenges specific to the region. For the last several hundred years, Europe remained the major area of concern in terms of great power politics.

Even in the second half of the 20th century when the center of gravity in international relations moved beyond it, the region continued to be the central battlefield and the major stake in the Cold War. This is no longer the case.

By the second decade of the 21st century, Asia’s economic rise  has increasingly spilled over into defence budgets (in 2018 it was responsible for 28% of global military spending in comparison with just 9% three decades earlier). The region hosts two potential superpowers – China and India, a technologically sophisticated Japan and a few other notable militaries.

A regional arms race is going only to intensify along with the advancement of new powerhouses. Meanwhile, a combination of concerns also forces some traditional powers to refocus their attention to Asia. First and foremost, it became the primary area of operation for the United States. To a lesser extent, a similar rebalancing to the East is pursued by Moscow as well.

These shifts in strategic environment mean that the security situation in Europe becomes ever more dependent on developments elsewhere, while historically it was often the other way around. Such linkage extends to the arms control domain, as any measures stabilizing the regional balance will be weighted against collateral losses that global players could suffer in other geographic areas.

This does not necessarily mean that they will avoid any commitments. However, current political transformations weaken the European agency in any efforts to regulate military postures and make any potential arrangements more fragile.

These came clearly on display in the context of the disintegration of the INF Treaty. Its demise was caused by not only concerns in Moscow and Washington regarding alleged violations of the other side, but also by an American desire to offset growing Chinese capabilities.

For this specific agreement, such linkage is not completely extraordinary. While the dispute over intermediate missiles in the 1980s was driven by considerations regarding European security, the decision to eliminate rather than geographically restrict them was affected by Japan’s objections to the transfer of Soviet capabilities to the East.

However, there is a qualitative difference with the current situation. At the time, concerns regarding Asia led to modifications in regime design, now they are crucial for its fate.Given the ongoing trends in power transition, the possibility for Europe to isolate from external influences could be expected to diminish further. In terms of strategic stability, efforts to reinstate arms limitations will be defined by a shift from dyadic balancing between Russia and the United States to a more multilateral equation with a greater role for China, but also potentially India and some other states.

Control over other aspects of military postures (to the extent it will be possible to discriminate them in light of the technological shifts discussed above) will suffer from difficulties in restricting agile forces in one regional theater without harming it elsewhere.


The preceding analysis aimed to outline the broad trends affecting the future of arms control. It sought to examine the big picture beyond disputes and allegations over individual agreements and specific violations. Henceforth, it examined major developments in such domains as the general political environment, military doctrines and technological innovations. It also traced possible consequences from ongoing and expected transformations for stability in Europe.

This assessment demonstrates that many premises of arms control established in the second half of the 20th century are no longer valid. To promote meaningful institutions enabling greater predictability and escalatory control, it is crucial to adapt to the characteristics defining modern agile forces. This requires an ability to regulate dynamic postures, qualitative instead of quantitative criteria, as well as integration tools rather than just strike capabilities.

No less fundamental is the need to rethink basic categories defining various levels and aspects of the military balance. In particular, strategic stability becomes an increasingly diluted notion with the rise of new  capabilities, which could affect it. There are also new ways to harass, coerce and subvert opponents short of war, which could also become destabilizing. As the aptitude to regulate depends on the ability to define the objects of regulation, possible negotiations on the future arms control should be preceded by serious conceptual work.

Finally, global power transitions mean that successful arms control in Europe needs greater sensitivity towards developments elsewhere. Regional actors should either find ways to minimize broader repercussions of local arrangements in an increasingly interdependent world, or attempt to converse certain mechanisms into global norms, or elaborate regimes which would strengthen rather than bind major powers in other areas of operation.

Examined trends are probably not the only ones which will affect arms control. Any list in this regard cannot pretend to be exhaustive, especially, if we account for “unknown unknowns”. However, the systematic manner of the preceding analysis enabled to construct a coherent framework covering all major domains (political, organizational and technological) affecting the prospects of regional stability. It presents significant and multifaceted difficulties in achieving arms control, but it also identified pathways for work that could that could be done in order to make it possible. 


The author wants to thank participants of the 9th YGLN Meeting in Berlin (June 23-25, 2019) as well as Maxim Suchkov and Oleg Shakirov for their invaluable comments on the previous drafts of the paper. The analysis benefited from the research funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation (grant agreement number 14.641.31.0002).

Disclaimer: This article elaborates issues discussed at the Young Generation Leadership Network (YGLN) workshop, which took place on 24-25 June 2019 at Heinrich Boell Foundation. The opinions articulated in this article represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of our foundation or the YGLN. Our common aim is to stimulate a security related dialogue among emerging experts in the Euro-Atlantic area.