The implications of the state of conventional arms control for European security

| Working Paper

Even in 2018 Russia and NATO have accused each other of violating key principles of the European security order and arms control agreements as well as increasing political pressure and mounting military threat. Escalatory rhetoric and military action such as the introduction of new weapons systems, restructuring and stationing of additional military units adjacent to critical areas, enlarged sizes and numbers of military manoeuvres, reconnaissance and show of force combined with brinkmanship in and above High Seas have added to threat perceptions in a number of NATO countries as well as in Russia. This paper analyzes possible options for de-escalation and gives concrete recommendations on the next steps.


Escalatory rhetoric and opposing narratives fortify mutual threat perceptions. Western military threat perceptions focus on potentially offensive force postures and imbalances in a sub-regional context, Russian large-scale and snap exercises as well as dangerous encounters in and above sea areas. Russian military threat perceptions do not only concentrate on NATO’s sub-regional force build-up, but also on allied rapid reinforcement capabilities and strategic imbalances as to NATO’s overall force projection potentials.

Stabilizing instruments such as arms control treaties and CSBMs, which were agreed in the 1990s, have eroded during the past decade or proven insufficient to hedge risks and maintain strategic stability. The absence of effective arms control at the sub-regional and pan-European level, limited transparency and verification of force postures and military activities, as well as the lack of meaningful military-to-military dialogue, have increased the feeling of insecurity and fueled suspicion on the future intent of the respective opponent.

Policy recommendations

Returning to fact-based threat assessments: Strengthening the OSCE Structured Dialogue

  1. OSCE pS should support and accelerate the OSCE “Structured Dialogue”. It offers a most valuable forum for resuming a substantial dialogue on political and military security concerns.

  2. The “Mapping” process seems conducive to gaining a clearer and sober picture of current and planned force postures and military activities and basing risk assessments on solid and comprehensive facts rather than on incompatible political narratives. Although the evaluation of military facts would not mitigate supposed violations of principles and compliance issues, a sober “mapping” could help avoid further deterioration by exaggerated threat perceptions.

  3. States should allow for enlarging the limited scope of data under evaluation (Vienna Document, Global Exchange of Military Information) in order to reflect today’s military capabilities more comprehensively and, thus, enable realistic assessments of risk scenarios. That requires a balanced approach taking into account sub-regional, regional, and strategic potentials and risks.

  4. States should acknowledge and actively pursue the objective to use the “Structured Dialogue” as a basis for hedging the dangers of misperceptions, developing deescalatory measures, and returning to mutual security assurances, restraint, and predictability. To that end, the dialogue should review available stability instruments with a view to identifying gaps, modernizing CSBMs, and revitalizing conventional arms control.

Addressing potentially offensive force postures: Closing the arms control gap

  1. In response to mutual threat perceptions in the Baltic Region, NATO Member States and Russia should recommit to reciprocal restraint commitments enshrined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the CFE Final Act.

  2. Clarifying and defining the term “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” would help to dispel doubts about its meaning. It would enhance sub-regional restraint and stability without formal negotiations on a new arms control regime.

  3. For establishing stability benchmarks, states could take the 1999 levels of armaments limited by the CFE Treaty (TLE) as a baseline. In addition, some margin of flexibility could be considered allowing for modernization or reinforcement of existing units below the threshold of “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces”.

  4. To satisfy the need for legitimate defense and training requirements, one could consider a limited margin for temporarily exceeding such thresholds for the purposes of exercises or crisis response, however, under strict transparency and verification obligations.

  5. As current threat perceptions do not only refer to mobile ground operations, enlarging the scope of such restraint commitments seems advisable. Therefore, restraint and verified transparency measures should also cover A2/AD capabilities, ground-launched short-range ballistic missiles, long-range air- or sea-launched precision-guided munitions as well as strategic air mobility, rapid reaction capabilities, and multinational force cooperation and integration that can alter the sub-regional force balance.

  6. Germany and like-minded states should make concrete proposals on conceptual approaches towards a future conventional arms control regime that is suited to contribute to military stability. To rally the widest possible support such concepts should be based on the principles of mutual strategic restraint, reciprocity of measures, military relevance as to scope and area of application, verifiable sufficiency, i.e. upper thresholds for forces not exceeding legitimate defence requirements, and full transparency also in times of crisis. Though such measures are not enough to solve territorial disputes, they can help to deescalate the wider crisis in Europe, prevent any further escalation in and beyond the actual conflict zone, and reduce military tensions in other sensitive areas. This might pave the way for exploring new avenues towards a comprehensive conflict settlement with a view to rebuilding trust and eventually restoring security cooperation.

Addressing large-scale exercises: Enlarging the limited scope of the Vienna Document

  1. In order to generate comprehensive transparency of large-scale exercises, enlarging the scope of the Vienna Document would be more pertinent than lowering the thresholds for notification and observation. It should cover also non-combat formations and units of armed forces beyond ground forces and their supporting elements.

  2. Such extension of the VD scope would also take account of certain units and weapon categories, which have acquired enhanced military capabilities but are not covered by VD provisions. That includes advanced air and missile defense systems and long-range precision-guided standoff munitions that can be launched by ships or aircraft from geographical positions far outside the actual zone of conflict.

  3. In this context, the definition of the VD zone of application in Europe needs clarification as to the term “adjoining sea areas”.

  4. Attention should also be devoted to rapid reaction forces and strategic mobility assets as they significantly increase the capability to reinforce troops in crisis areas over long distances in short time.

Addressing uncertain military activities: Tackling exceptions from transparency rules

  1. Vienna Document exceptions from observation obligations for snap exercises could be reduced to 48 hours.

  2. Prior information of snap exercises of neighboring countries should be promoted, particularly in times of crisis, to avoid misperceptions and escalation.

  3. States should consider providing more transparency and observation opportunities voluntarily in times of crisis and keep restraint in large-scale and snap exercises, particularly in border regions, to reassure neighbors and deescalate the situation as suggested in Chapter X of the Vienna Document.

  4. States should also make a more generous use of the FSC decision to provide voluntary notification of one exercise per year that does not exceed Vienna Document thresholds for notification of certain military activities.

  5. States should make proper use of VD inspections designed to monitor any area in which large-scale military activities take place that either do not exceed VD thresholds or are supposed to evade proper notification requirements.

  6. More attention should be devoted to the principle of territorial responsibility of states for notification and observation. It might blur the full size of multinational exercises under a single command that take place in different national territories and exceed VD thresholds in combination only. Such activities should be made subject to notification and observation requirements.

  7. Day-to-day counting of personnel involved in sequential phases of one single exercise also poses a problem that needs clarification. This practice might imply that at no single day VD thresholds are exceeded while the overall numbers of personnel participating during a larger timeframe could be significantly higher.

Addressing incident prevention: International law and risk reduction

  1. In order to prevent unintended hazardous incidents in international sea- and airspace, all states should take “due regard” as required by international law and tighten their rules of engagement (RoE) accordingly. They should train pilots and navy captains to keep secure minimum distances from international borders as well as disputed territories and carry out responsible flight maneuvers that neither endanger the safety of aviation nor trigger unwanted hostile action.

  2. To that end, regional states should engage in a military dialogue with a view to enhancing the security of national


  • Wolfgang Richter

    Wolfgang Richter (Colonel ret.) is Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin, Research Group on Security Politics. He served for many years in various German delegations to, inter alia, the United Nations and the OSCE.