Arms control regimes have been among the many casualties of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the wider context of collapsing trust between Moscow and the West. Jordan Smith argues that initiatives at multiple levels to restrain, record and verify the development and deployment of weapons by all sides of the conflict are essential to rebuilding confidence and a crucial part of any eventual peace settlement.
There were many experts who thought Putin would never attempt a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Yet, almost a year later, the war continues with Ukraine’s Armed Forces defying expectations by holding on to Kyiv and, despite enduring near daily missile attacks, pushing Russian troops out of major cities such as Kharkiv and Kherson. The Ukrainians have shown a resolve which may well lead them to victory over the occupying Russian forces.
If, as now seems increasingly possible, Ukraine does emerge victorious, Kyiv and a sceptical West will have to reach some kind of accommodation with Russia once again. Despite being in power for over twenty years, Putin and his regime will not last indefinitely, but Russia and the Russian people will. Rebuilding trust between Russia, Ukraine, and the West must include a renewed focus on arms control. To build a lasting peace in Ukraine and Europe, such action and related confidence-building measures will need to occur simultaneously at the unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral levels of government.
A unilateral move: national arms reporting
National arms reporting, in which governments make data on the import and export of arms and dual-use technology publicly available, has become the norm across Europe, including in the Balkans. It provides transparency and demonstrates a lack of hostile intentions, thereby preventing military miscalculations between nations. After the end of the conflict (whenever that may be), Russia and Ukraine should both release annual national reports on their arms transfers as a unilateral confidence-building measure.
Russia needs to rebuild trust with other nations by publishing national arms reports in the years after the conflict. This should ease fears that Russian aggression will be repeated and would enable the international community to identify any future arms build-up by Russia. A commitment to national arms reporting by Moscow should be included in any peace agreement as a minimum for restoring trust.
Unsurprisingly, access to publicly available data on Russia’s international arms transfers has been limited and inaccurate according to the non-governmental organisation, Saferworld. Therefore, in a future post-conflict context, in which Russia has committed to national arms reporting, more support must be given to Russian administrators so that they have the necessary skills to collect, analyse, and maintain data on Russian arms transfers. This support could be provided through multilateral organisations such as the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), both of which have experience in providing training.
Ukraine has consistently released detailed reports (available in Ukrainian and English) since at least 2004 through its State Service of Export Control. This shows that Ukraine is both capable of and committed to accurately providing accessible data on its international arms transfers. Kyiv should return to publishing these reports after the war.
Two sets of bilateral talks
Two sets of bilateral talks on arms control and related confidence-building measures will be essential in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict: US-Russian and Russian-Ukrainian.
Negotiations on arms control between the United States and Russia cannot wait until a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine is reached. In November 2022, Russia unilaterally postponed crucial talks on the 2010 New START Treaty – the only remaining bilateral treaty concerning American and Russian nuclear stockpiles – which is set to expire in 2026. These talks are unlikely to produce anything substantial until the conflict in Ukraine is resolved. However, this does not have to be the case. Historically, arms control agreements have been negotiated during times of heightened tensions, including the early 1960s and mid-1980s.
Talks between Moscow and Washington must resume as soon as possible to ensure that the groundwork for extending the New START Treaty is laid before 2026. This will reduce the risk of the treaty expiring, leaving US and Russian nuclear arsenals unregulated, as they were during the most dangerous phase of the Cold War. This presents an undeniable global threat.
In recent years, both Russia and the United States have walked away from several key arms control agreements and treaties including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 and the Open Skies Treaty of 1992, with little appetite in Moscow or Washington to save them. A new round of US-Russian arms control talks could foster a more stable and predictable relationship and the Ukraine crisis could provide the motivation needed to bring the two sides back to the table.
Arms control is also likely to play a pivotal role in any future peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Removing major conventional arms from the most highly contested areas could be the goal of such talks and would prevent outbreaks of violence that place civilian populations at elevated risk. This could lead to the development of a demilitarised zone in regions along the Russian-Ukrainian border with the aim of preventing a significant build-up of forces like that seen in the winter of 2021-22. Independent observers would be required to monitor such a demilitarised zone; this step would need the involvement of international partners deemed acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of monitoring international arms transfers so that any significant build-up of arms can be detected as early as possible. Existing multilateral arms transparency mechanisms such as the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) should be maintained and strengthened because of their ability to help us better understand international arms flows.
For example, reporting to UNROCA has declined to its lowest level since 1992, according to the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. By August 2022, just 21% of UN member states had submitted data to UNROCA for 2021. The UNROCA Secretariat should receive greater resourcing so that it can actively encourage greater participation as its current capacity is limiting its success.
States contribute to UNROCA voluntarily and provide as much information as they want. This leads to significant variations in the quality and accuracy of submissions. A renewed effort to encourage more countries to submit full and accurate data to UNROCA will help restore its usefulness for tracking any future build-up of arms. As Pieter Wezeman and Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) have reported, the decline in reporting has “undermined the usefulness of UNROCA as the confidence-building and stability-promoting measure it was designed to be”. But if UN member states are persuaded to re-engage with UNROCA then its usefulness can be restored. Engagement and participation are key. Identifying such arms build-ups will allow diplomats to address tensions before they evolve into armed conflict.
It is never too early to ask ourselves “what comes next” once the war in Ukraine ends. Arms control and arms-related confidence-building measures will play a fundamental role in any peace negotiations. Measures such as accurate and consistent national arms reporting can help to rebuild the trust lost between Russia and Ukraine since the February 2022 invasion and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In addition, renewed participation in arms transparency measures like UNROCA will reduce the risk of a repeat of the situation in Ukraine by allowing researchers and policymakers to identify any build-up of arms and to respond accordingly.
These two steps can form an initial building block upon which stronger, more comprehensive arms control agreements can be reached. The importance of US-Russian bilateral arms control has not waned since the end of the Cold War and the war in Ukraine has only highlighted the risks posed by a breakdown in US-Russian cooperation on nuclear arms control. These steps are not without their flaws, and will require a good deal of political will to implement effectively, but they provide options that give us a glimmer of hope for the future.
Jordan Smith was an Arms & Military Expenditure Research Intern at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and a Defence Content Researcher for Shephard Media. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London and an MA in Violence, Terrorism & Security from Queens University Belfast.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: OSCE. Danish F-16 jets accompany a Russian An-30 aircraft during an observation flight under the Open Skies Treaty over the territory of Denmark, 12 June 2008.