Russia's recent announcement that it intends to formally suspend its compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which limits Russian and NATO conventional forces and heavy weaponry in Europe, has caused consternation in Western capitals.
In addition, Russian officials threatened that Moscow may also withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which limits the deployment of intermediate-range missiles.
Signed in 1992 after 10 years of painstaking negotiation, the CFE Treaty is regarded as the cornerstone of stability in Europe. The Bush administration has expressed dismay regarding the Russian decision to scrap the agreement. But the administration's own unilateral actions and approach to arms control have contributed to the current dilemma and provided both a motivation as well as a pretext for the Russian action.
In effect, the Russians have simply adopted the Bush administration's own unilateralist approach to arms control.
Unilateralism was at the heart of the Bush administration's foreign policy when it came to power in 2001. The administration quickly denounced a wide range of international agreements and ongoing negotiations, many of which had been created by years of U.S. leadership.
Examples of these agreements include the Kyoto accords on climate change, the International Criminal Court, and negotiations on the Biological Weapons Convention and the fissile material cutoff.
The centerpiece of the administration's agenda was scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so that the United States could develop and deploy missile defenses how and where it wanted. In response, an angry Russia refused to ratify the strategic arms reduction treaty called START II, an accord that was negotiated by Bush's father and would have eliminated all multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Today all that remains of the limits on offensive nuclear forces and missile defenses are the START I and INF treaties, which are now the only accords that permit on-site inspections of nuclear forces and require consultative meetings.
START I is set to expire in 2009, and the Bush administration has shown no interest in extending it. The 2002 Moscow treaty will reduce forces below START levels by 2012 but has no inspection provisions and will expire the day after the limits are reached.
The rationale for scrapping decades of arms control with Russia was that the Cold War was over and the United States and Russia were no longer enemies. Removing treaties that codified an adversarial relationship was the key to moving forward, the Bush administration argued. The assessment of the emerging U.S.-Russian relationship was correct, but America's largely unilateral approach has complicated the transition and set a precedent that is now coming back to haunt the administration.
Arms control, of course, should not be pursued simply for its own sake. Nor should U.S. policymakers shrink from amending — or even scrapping — arms agreements that no longer serve American interests. However, as the United States and Russia seek to adapt their military forces to a radically changed post-Cold War security environment, they need to preserve a framework that ensures some predictability and continuity.
Prudently pursued, arms control agreements provide a means for controlling unbridled arms competition, create transparency, and act as a brake on precipitous actions that can negatively affect the security of the other side.
Moscow's principal concern appears to be the unpredictability that has been created by unilateral U.S. moves: no limits on defenses, no long-term limits on strategic nuclear forces, and no forum for regular discussion. At the same time, a stronger, more assertive Russia wants to be free of the constraints in the CFE treaty, which limits the number of forces it can deploy on its northern and southern flanks — the Baltic area and the Caucasus region.
Moreover, Moscow's threat to withdraw from the INF treaty suggests that this may be the first step in a broader effort to scrap other arms control agreements that it no longer believes serves its national interests.
The problem is that unilateralism begets unilateralism.
The U.S. actions have now freed Russia to take unilateral steps of its own. Moreover, the American policy has given Russia a ready-made justification for abrogating agreements that it now finds onerous, following the precedent set by the United States.
However, Moscow's threat to suspend the CFE treaty does not necessarily signal an irrevocable determination to abrogate the treaty. The Russians have left the door open to a possible renegotiation of the agreement.
There is still room for creative U.S. diplomacy. While insisting that the Russians honor their commitments under the CFE treaty, Washington should indicate a willingness to discuss further adjustments in the treaty once the Russians have carried out their current obligations. At the same time, the United States should use the occasion to begin to rebuild a more comprehensive arms control framework that provides greater predictability and transparency.
Rebuilding such a comprehensive framework will not be easy. But it is vital that the two sides begin the effort before the whole edifice painstakingly constructed over the last three decades collapses, leading to the onset of a new era of unbridled Russian-American arms competition.
David Mosher is a senior policy analyst and F. Stephen Larrabee holds the corporate chair in European security at the RAND Corp., a non-profit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on August 10, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.