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Russia Weighs Arms Control Negotiations As Fear Of War In Ukraine Looms

7 minute read

The United States and NATO have dismissed Russia’s list of demands to resolve the ongoing military crisis over Ukraine, but on Wednesday offered Moscow the opportunity for further discussions on arms control and missile deployments. It was the latest in diplomatic tensions triggered by Russia’s months-long positioning of 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, which has stoked widespread fears of war.

“There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after a four-hour meeting between the U.S., Russia, and all 30 NATO members. “There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia. Our differences will not be easy to bridge, but it is a positive sign that all NATO allies and Russia sat down around the same table and engaged on substantive topics.”

The talks in Brussels marked the first formal meeting between NATO and Russian officials in nearly three years. Stoltenberg said NATO allies committed to future discussions on topics where the two sides could make progress, including reducing space and cyber threats, increasing transparency of military exercises and nuclear nonproliferation. The alliance told Russia it was willing to schedule a series of meetings on arms issues, he said, but the Russian delegation needed more time before committing to follow-up discussions.

The U.S., NATO and Russia all appear willing to reestablish some form of an arms control agreement similar to the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated mid-range nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe for three decades before it ended in 2019. Achieving a new treaty would involve months of negotiations, a resolution to the volatile situation unfolding in Ukraine and sorting out the issues that led to the treaty’s termination more than two years ago. But all sides acknowledge a need to address this category of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, which are considered destabilizing because of their capability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe without early warning.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Wednesday a moratorium on such weapons should be declared by all sides. There was no need, he said, to return to the days in the 1970s and 1980s when false warnings over missile launches in Europe were commonplace and haphazardly risked nuclear war. “Europe should declare its stance and prevent such a scenario from happening in the current security situation,” Grushko said in Brussels.

The request to reestablish a missile treaty was initially part of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s lengthy lists of demands published in two draft treaties in December. The documents laid out what Moscow seeks from the U.S. and its allies in Europe amid growing concerns over Ukraine. The most controversial of these demands was for NATO to stop allowing new members into the alliance and a request for NATO members to withdraw troops, equipment and weaponry from countries bordering Russia. Ukraine, notably, is not a NATO member.

Since the end of the Cold War, the NATO alliance has nearly doubled from 16 to 30 countries, including nations more than 600 miles from the German border, which was the previous dividing-line after World War II. One by one, Russia has watched as seven of the eight former countries that signed onto the Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact ultimately join NATO.

The U.S. and NATO say it’s up to sovereign nations to join the alliance, not the Kremlin. Any demand to stop its expansion is a nonstarter. “We will not slam the door shut on NATO’s open-door policy,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We are not going to agree that NATO cannot expand any further.”

For now, most of the diplomatic focus in Geneva remains on avoiding conflict in Ukraine. Russia insists it has no plans to invade, but those words provide little assurance to U.S. and NATO officials, who watched as Russian forces invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The NATO-Russia Council meeting Wednesday and followed U.S.-Russia bilateral talks in Geneva on Monday. A third round between the West and Moscow is slated for Thursday in Vienna with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Echoes of the Cold War

In 2019, the Trump Administration formally withdrew from the INF treaty after alleging Russia had violated it by building, producing, and fielding prohibited a cruise missile, known as the Novator 9M729, after repeated warnings from Washington. The 1987 agreement forced the U.S. and then-Soviet Union to scrap more than 2,600 missiles with ranges from 310 to 3,420 miles across Europe. The short distances gave world leaders little time run for cover—let alone strategize about the right response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has voiced his concern over the U.S. possibly installing missiles in Ukraine. The Biden Administration insists it has no intention to place missiles in Ukraine, but it has taken other measures that likely got Moscow’s attention. In November, as Russia built up its forces near Ukraine, the U.S. Army reactivated its European Theater Fires Command. The unit, known as the 56th Artillery Command, was previously deactivated in 1991 after the INF treaty was signed.

Separately, unconstrained by the INF agreement, the U.S. military almost immediately began developing and testing various midrange missiles back home, which are set to be operational by next year. While there is no indication that any European ally would want them in their country or that the U.S. has plans to deploy them there, the development concerned arms control advocates. The fear of midrange missiles—which can be driven on a mobile launcher into a remote area, blasted off and strike their targets in less than six minutes—is common among European nations.

“The loss of the INF treaty dealt a huge blow to international and European security,” said Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst with the Arms Control Association. “United States and Russia should explore arms control efforts aimed at avoiding a Euromissile race in the absence of the INF treaty, and the Russian moratorium proposal can serve as a starting point for such efforts.”

The U.S. spent six years trying to persuade Russia to eliminate its Novator 9M729 missile and corresponding launchers because it violated the INF treaty. Moscow denied any abrogation and instead insisted that the U.S. was the one that’s in defiance of the agreement, saying certain interceptors on American missile defense systems under construction in Poland and Romania had offensive capabilities. The result was the end of the agreement in August 2019.

Its demise was welcomed by defense hawks who believed the treaty was outdated and restricted the Pentagon’s ability to project power in Europe and also in Asia. The U.S. was now free to deploy a new generation of missiles on both continents to deter Russia and China, which could always deploy all manners of missiles because it wasn’t a signatory to the INF treaty.

A new agreement to limit such missiles would look different, says Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons analyst with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. Any new treaty wouldn’t be nearly as restrictive. The two nations may decide limitations only apply to Europe rather than the previous blanket ban, he says, or involve a verification regime that ensures none of the missiles carry nuclear warheads.

“Verification won’t be easy, of course, but that may be a good thing—in a way, the more intrusive the measures, the better,” says Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project. “There are many ways to do this. On some level, it’s more important to start the process than to have in mind a particular end point. A full ban is not impossible in my view, but maybe not right away.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com