The Collapse of Global Arms Control

7 minute read

As the clock struck midnight on Nov. 7 in Moscow, the Kremlin defiantly renounced its membership in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), once thought of as a pillar of European stability. The treaty, the Russian Foreign Ministry wrote, “has become history for Russia once and for all.” NATO countries quickly followed suit, suspending their treaty obligations.

The CFE is not the only arms control agreement to have been thrown onto the garbage heap of history in recent years. New START, INF, ABM, CTBT, the Vienna document and Open Skies are all arms control treaties that have been hampered, suspended or discarded as tensions have ratcheted between Russia and the West.

An alphabet soup of clunky acronyms, these treaties were strands in a complex web of overlapping treaties that helped ensure peace and reduce the chances of a full-scale war between NATO and Russia. 

Arms control agreements generally lock countries into promises to limit their military activity and set up monitoring mechanisms so leaders can make sure their counterparts are abiding by their commitments. Past agreements set limits to Russia and the U.S.'s nuclear arsenals or capped active military forces in Europe. This helped minimize misunderstandings, prevent arms races and build hard-earned trust between military rivals. 

They are the result of decades of painstaking diplomatic efforts to stabilize the Euro-Atlantic world. But as arms control treaties have become increasingly frayed, the guardrails they established have been torn down.

“There is no question that we are in a situation where the security system that was so laboriously built up in the Cold War years is being shredded,” says Rose Gottemoeller, the lead U.S. negotiator for New START, the last major nuclear accord between the U.S. and Russia, who now works at Stanford University.

Here’s what to know about the collapse of arms control, its consequences and what the prospects are for renewal.

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Russian opts out of arms control

Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the collapse of arms control agreements has sped up. “As nuclear risks are rising, Russia is intentionally using nuclear weapons to manipulate risk,” says Heather Williams, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Russia has suspended its cooperation with the New START treaty, and de-ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, a multilateral treaty to ban nuclear weapons testing. Russia says it is merely seeking parity with the U.S., who has yet to ratify the treaty. But growing voices within Russia have called for Moscow to resume arms testing, something no country other than North Korea has done since the 1990s.

While the Biden administration has sought to keep arms control talks on a separate track from the diplomatic breakdown in Russia-U.S. relations, Russian officials have warned that arms control talks will be impossible while the U.S. continues to support Ukraine. "It is simply impossible to return to dialogue on strategic stability, including New START, without changes in the United States' deeply, fundamentally hostile course towards Russia,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Oct. 25.

“Russian leadership just doesn't believe that arms control is that important to Russia, or at least much less important than whatever Russia is trying to do in Ukraine,” says Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

Read more: Russia’s Latest Threat: New Nuclear Tests

Outside of the nuclear sphere, the treaties managing conventional arms have fared little better. The CFE treaty put limits on the number of troops and weapons that could be deployed from the Ural mountains in Russia to the Atlantic Ocean. It has collapsed. The Open Skies treaty allowed signatories countries to fly surveillance planes over other countries to keep a wary eye out for military build-ups. Russia and the U.S. both pulled out of the treaty during the Trump years. The Vienna document required states to share information about their militaries. It hangs in the balance after Russia stopped cooperating in March 2023.

“It's a complete and utter setback for any sort of military transparency in Europe,” says Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

A gradual collapse

But experts say that the story of the demise of arms control goes further back than the war in Ukraine. In the years after the Cold War, these treaties remained out of the public eye. “They were off the front burner and people were kind of ho hum, yawn, they're still implementing those boring old treaties from the Cold War.” says Gottemoeller. “Now, everyone misses them when they're gone.”

In 2002, President George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which sought to restrain arms races by limiting missile defenses. He claimed that this treaty was no longer necessary, even as Russia’s president Vladimir Putin described the move as a “mistake.”

“From that point on, I think Russia no longer saw the United States as a partner,” says Jon Wolfsthal, a former National Security Council staffer, who now works at the Federation of American Scientists. “Putin's worst instincts were fanned and fed.”

An activist wearing a mask of Russia's President Vladimir Putin stands next to fellow activists of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) peace protest in Berlin on June 23, 2023.Odd Andersen—AFP/Getty Images

In 2019, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after the U.S. found Russia to be in violation of its treaty commitments. The treaty banned ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,000 kilometers, and led to the elimination of an entire category of nuclear weapons. “For some parts of the GOP, arms control is kind of no-go,” says Tobias Fella, an arms control researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Berlin.

Some experts worry that today’s leaders lack the fear of nuclear annihilation that previous generations had. “For a lot of leaders, the memory of the Cuban missile crisis is not there,” says Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institute. The shock of coming one step short of nuclear war in 1962 paved the way for some of the earliest agreements on nuclear arms control.

“The hope is that our leaders across the board will be smart enough to realize we shouldn't have to go through an existential crisis to get to a common sense outcome,” says Wolfsthal.

What comes next?

Across the board, the three largest nuclear powers are upgrading their arsenals. China is in the process of rapidly building nukes, and will likely double its nuclear arsenal to more than 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade, according to the Pentagon. Russia and the U.S. remain in the midst of their own extensive nuclear modernization programs, replacing cold war weaponry with modern, more capable kit. 

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“We may be in for some period of arms race with Russia and China before we remember the lessons we learned with the Soviet Union back in the 1960s," says Pifer. “At some point, you pile on more weapons, but they do not enhance your security.”

Even so, there have been some recent developments that have sparked a modicum of optimism among arms control experts. On Monday, Nov. 6 Chinese and American officials met to discuss arms control issues, the first meeting of its kind since the Obama administration. While it is unclear whether the talks led to any tangible results, even a rare sit-down was welcomed as a positive sign.

“The hope is that with some success in implementing confidence-building measures, there may be a foundation to join to discuss more ambitious arms control steps,” says Tong Zhao, an expert in China’s nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Even so, he stresses that Beijing has “little political will to engage in substantive measures to limit China's capabilities and growth.”

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